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Federal government signs $3.1-billion health accord deal with Ontario

Ontario will spend $3.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford gives remarks at the 2023 Ontario Economic Summit, in Toronto, Wednesday, Nov., 1, 2023.  Ford signed a $3.1 billion health deal with Ottawa to improve access to family doctors. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

Ontario will spend $3.1 billion in federal health-care funding on increasing access to family doctors, reducing backlogs and adding more health-care workers, the premier and the prime minister announced Friday as they formalized a decade-long health accord. 

The funding covers three years out of the $8.4-billion 10-year agreement in principle the federal government reached last year with the province, part of an overall $198.6 billion for health funding across the country. Ontario is the fifth province to officially sign on for its share.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the money will help ease pressures that health systems across the country are facing.

"Access to family doctors and nurse practitioners is not what it needs to be," he said at a news conference. 

"Emergency rooms are overwhelmed. People are waiting too long for surgeries and health-care workers ... are under immense pressure, working in incredibly trying conditions. So we are focused on addressing those challenges." 

Premier Doug Ford said Ontario has made progress on shortening wait times and increasing access to primary care, but there is more to do.

"This $3.1 billion investment will be used for targeted initiatives to continue building up our health workforce, improve access to family health services, enhanced mental health and addiction programs, and expand access to digital health," he said. 

"It will help to ensure that people across Ontario will continue to get the high quality convenient care they need when they need it." 

The Ontario Nurses' Association questioned the rosy statistics presented at the news conference by the premier and Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones, including numbers of new nurses in the province.

"If we have so many new nurses, why is it that Ontario is seeing hundreds of emergency departments continuing to have to close due to nurse staffing shortages?" president Erin Ariss wrote in a statement.

Ontario's auditor general found in a report late last year that between July 2022 and June 2023 there were 203 temporary emergency department closures across the province. 

Amid that strain on the system, one in five patients who visited ERs were only there because they did not have a family doctor, and they did not need urgent care, the report found.

According to the Ontario Medical Association, 2.3 million people in Ontario do not have a family doctor, and the association predicts that number will double within two years.

"Ontario's doctors welcome this funding that will help address the most urgent issues," OMA president Dr. Andrew Park wrote in a statement.

"While we tackle the most urgent issues, we also need to ensure we have a long-term, stable funding formula to fix the underlying issues in system and build for future, knowing we have an aging and more medically complex patient population.”

The OMA said it had hoped Ottawa would increase the federal share of health-care costs from 22 per cent to 35 per cent, as provinces had urged. The agreement boosts the percentage to 24 per cent.

Many of the items Ontario committed to using the funding for are previously announced multi-year programs, and officials say it will help the province build on what is already underway.

The province says $30 million per year will help create more primary care teams, including doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, pharmacists and social workers.

Ontario says it will also put $69 million per year to help internationally educated health professionals, including extending a program that enables internationally trained nurses to work in the province faster and launching a program to quickly assess whether an international doctor can practice immediately.

As well, the province has agreed to put $40 million per year toward expanding enrolment in medical schools, with 60 per cent of postgraduate spots dedicated to family medicine, and 71 positions specifically at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. 

All provinces that agree to the deal must also work to modernize their health data systems, starting with making patient records more accessible and transferable between jurisdictions. 

Provinces must measure their progress against targets set by the Canadian Institute for Health Information and publicly report that progress each year. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2024.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press