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Privatizing COVID-19 testing ‘appalling,’ says Ontario Health Coalition

Posted: April 1, 2022

(March 30, 2022)

By: Paul Forsyth, St. Catharines Standard

The Ontario Health Coalition and the Ontario Nurses’ Association decried what they said is the privatization of PCR testing for COVID-19 in Ontario, in a briefing with reporters on Wednesday.

In order to be tested for COVID-19, Ontarians are being forced to have to choose between using private for-profit companies and clinics and paying exorbitant rates, or going without testing, which risks spreading the potentially deadly virus, the Ontario Health Coalition says.

The coalition, which held a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, is demanding the provincial government stop what it called privatization of COVID-19 testing and restore access to public testing as what could be a sixth wave of the pandemic takes hold in Ontario.

The coalition alleges that the government of Premier Doug Ford is turning a blind eye to for-profit clinics charging patients for medically necessary tests — something the coalition says violates the core tenets of the Canada Health Act, which prohibits user fees for patients for medically-necessary services.

“Ontario is now shooting in the dark when gauging the severity of this sixth wave that we’re in,” Natalie Mehra, executive director of the health coalition, told reporters. “Tests, contact tracing (and) quarantine, which are foundational public health measures for containing the spread of infectious disease, have been abandoned in Ontario.”

At the end of last year, with Ontario in the grips of a surge of the Omicron variant, the province announced it was changing criteria around who is eligible to get a laboratory-based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to detect COVID-19, limiting those tests to people such as symptomatic folks who are hospitalized patients, in long-term-care or retirement homes, health-care workers, First Nations people, and some among other high-risk groups.

The coalition said the change means many people can’t get publicly delivered COVID-19 testing through their local public hospital assessment centre or public health unit even if they have symptoms and may have the new Omicron sub-variant, or if they have children in daycare who are exhibiting symptoms and have elderly family members at risk.

The rationing of PCR testing means testing has fallen to the lowest rates seen since the start of the pandemic, the coalition said.

Mehra said a survey by student nurses found companies are charging anywhere from $129, to more than $200 for PCR testing.

She said the testing issue reflects a move by the province toward privatization of health care. “We’re shocked and appalled that it is happening and we want it to end immediately,” she said.

Cathryn Hoy, president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association representing 68,000 front-line nurses, said people in the United States can go bankrupt and lose their homes accessing health care due to privatization there. She warned Ontario is on a slippery slope to that kind of privatization here.

“(It’s) so wrong,” she said. “Equal access to health care is a fundamental right in this country.”

“Middle and low-income families will struggle even more to get access and will have to fight with long wait lists and wait times,” said Hoy.

Dr. Gordon Guyatt a health coalition board member and professor at McMaster University, said in the briefing that claims by the province that there aren’t enough resources to allow PCR testing for everybody is “clearly bogus,” and said cutting back testing is dangerous because kids who may have been exposed could, without knowing it, be infecting vulnerable loved ones such as grandparents.

“It leaves people who have been exposed … uncertain if they’re carrying the virus,” he said.

The rationing of testing also puts people in low-income neighbourhoods, racialized communities and essential workers toiling in crowded working environments at risk, the coalition said.

“To privatize vital public health services in the midst of a pandemic is appalling,” said Mehra. “It is a violation of our core principles to cut off public access, then push patients to private for-profit clinics and charge them hundreds of dollars per test for diagnostic testing. It must stop immediately.”

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