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How Ontario’s home care plan would help a union that backs the Liberals

Posted: November 7, 2017

(November 7, 2017)

By: Mike Crawley, CBC News

Personal support workers employed by new provincial home care agency would likely join SEIU

You would expect the Wynne Liberals would shout from the rooftops when they make a change that gets the public sector to deliver more of our publicly funded health care.

Yet the government’s move to create a new agency to provide home care is being done so quietly that CBC News had to reveal it in an exclusive story Monday.

It makes you wonder.

Why are the Liberals not making a big deal out of Personal Support Services Ontario? The agency will start hiring personal support workers (PSWs) and begin delivering home care in the spring. It will take over a significant amount of the work that is currently done by a mix of for-profit companies and non-profit agencies.

This is a distinct shift in the provision of home care in Ontario that would give the Liberals huge brownie points from those demanding a fully public medical system.

“A public home care system would be a great leap forward, a huge benefit to Ontarians,” said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coaltiion. “It is, without question, in the public interest.”

Some with a more cynical view from inside Ontario’s $50-billion-a-year health-care industry say the Liberals are deliberately making this move quietly. They say the biggest beneficiary of a new government-run home-care agency will not be the patients receiving home care, but one particular union: SEIU Healthcare.

“This is not about health care, this is about delivering these workers to this union,” said one industry insider who asked not to be identified to avoid potential business repercussions. “Everybody in health care knows that this is what this play is all about.”

Multiple sources who have been briefed on the government’s plan say the agency is being set up in such a way that the PSWs it hires will almost certainly become members of SEIU, which currently represents about 12,000 home care workers in the province.

SEIU Healthcare’s links to Ontario Liberal Party

The president of SEIU Healthcare, Sharleen Stewart, was not available for an interview on Monday. She sent an emailed statement to CBC News.

“SEIU Healthcare is the largest union representing home care workers in Ontario,” said Stewart. “The solutions for this sector must be innovative and holistic to guarantee that the money invested in this sector goes to the frontline workers to provide a higher quality of care to clients.”

The links between the Ontario Liberal Party and SEIU are out in the open. The party’s past-president,. Michael Spitale, is director of government relations for SEIU.  The union has been one of the biggest donors to the party in recent years.

SEIU is also the key financial backer of Working Ontario Women, a group that recently launched attack ads against PC leader Patrick Brown.

So, questions naturally swirl around decisions the government makes that would seem to benefit SEIU, such as the new home care agency.

In the most recent budget, the government announced it will work with SEIU Healthcare to create a training program and facility for PSWs’ skills development.  The union president’s official reaction to the budget: “I applaud the Ontario government for making necessary investments across all sectors to ensure a brighter future for all health-care workers.”

Rival union leader Smokey Thomas, president of OPSEU, described the budget move in far less charitable terms: “This whole affair smacks of shady inside relationships that dangerously erode union democracy and the rights of workers to choose,” Thomas said.

The government’s official reasons for creating the new home-care agency are that it will give clients more choice in selecting a PSW, more control over their schedule, and more choice in services.

“Why don’t they let there just be more choice and flexibility in the existing home care set up?” asked Michael Decter, chair of the advocacy group Patients Canada and a former deputy minister of health for Ontario.

In an interview with CBC News on Monday, Decter said he does not agree that a government agency is the best means of providing home care.

“The track record of the government and Crown corporations in health care has not been great,” Decter said, pointing to such agencies as eHealth Ontario and Ornge air ambulance.

“The idea that a great way to deliver health care is with a government Crown corporation really just doesn’t hold water in the history of this province,” said Decter. “It’s better if you fund community organizations and hold them accountable.”

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