THUNDER BAY — Advocates are urging Thunder Bay residents to have their say in a ‘people’s referendum’ campaign looking to build opposition to the Ford government’s moves to expand the role of for-profit clinics in Ontario’s health system.
Organizers with the Ontario Health Coalition are soliciting votes in-person and online on Friday and Saturday in Thunder Bay and across the province.
The ‘referendum’ is not officially sanctioned and its results, set to be announced Tuesday, will be neither verifiable nor binding.
However, advocates behind the tactic hope it will mobilize public opinion against recent changes to the province’s health care system approved by the Progressive Conservative government.
The campaign responds to the government’s passage earlier this month of Bill 60 — also known as the Your Health Act — which expands the already substantial role of the private sector in Ontario’s health care system.
The bill will allow more private clinics, to offer publicly-funded procedures like cataract surgeries and hip and knee replacements, a move the government says will help reduce long wait lists at public hospitals.
Some health advocates and unions warn the plan risks worsening staffing shortages that have already caused closures of emergency rooms across the province.
Opponents have also painted the legislation as a gateway to further privatization down the road.
“We feel it’s just a slippery slope, this is the first step in privatizing many hospital services,” said Jules Tupker, co-chair of the Thunder Bay Health Coalition, a local branch of the Ontario Health Coalition.
“The hospitals were the last bastion of public health care, because of private long-term care … and home care is almost all privatized now. We’re heading toward American-style health care.”
The Ford government has dismissed those warnings as hyperbole, saying it will enforce guardrails to ensure patients at private clinics do not have to pay out of pocket, and emphasizing the potential benefits in reduced wait times.
Bill 60 includes a clause stating doctors at private clinics shall not turn patients away for choosing to pay with their OHIP card.
Opponents have argued private clinics have a track record of “up-charging” patients by recommending more expensive services not covered by public insurance.
Caitlin Campbell, a local health care worker who volunteered with the OHC campaign, said her experience in private health care settings left her skeptical.
“It was important for me to get involved because I’ve been a nurse for the last eight years, and before that a PSW working in privatized long-term care, so I saw a lot of the consequences of that,” she said.
“These for-profit companies aren’t just taking money from the patient, they’re taking money from the government as well that should be going into the public hospitals — that’s what we’re paying our taxes for.”
She hopes the campaign drives that message home at Queen’s Park.
“I hope at least more people will be aware of what’s happening,” she said. “I’m hoping the government will take in what the public thinks about this, and that we don’t want this, even if a couple of stakeholders want this.”
Provincial leaders have emphasized that private facilities were already performing publicly funded procedures before they came to office.
There are over 800 private clinics operating in Ontario, with most offering diagnostic imaging and testing.
Tupker calls expanding on that privatization a bad idea.
“Privatization is here already, there are private clinics going right now,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is stop it. The clinics that are there are there, and we can’t do anything about that, but we want to make sure it doesn’t go further.”
Federal health minister Jean-Yves Duclos, in Thunder Bay to announce unrelated funding on Wednesday, said his government is watching provincial moves to expand private care closely.
“Ability to pay in Canada cannot be a barrier to access medically necessary health care, in Ontario or anywhere else in Canada,” he said.
“We know there are providers that will be partnering with the Province of Ontario to provide medically-necessary services, but these services need to be free of charge. Otherwise, this is a violation of the Health Act.”
Tupker calls the campaign a response to what he sees as an un-democratic move by the Ford government.
“During the election, of course, there was no mention at all of privatizing health care, because they didn’t want to present that, so they have no mandate to privatize our hospital services,” he said.
“If the government had held a referendum and said, we want to privatize some of our hospital services, I think the majority of the people would have said no – and that’s what we’re seeing here.”
As of Friday morning, the campaign had registered over 120,000 online votes, with organizers hoping for similar numbers from in-person locations.
Ontario Health Coalition leaders had promoted a goal of a million votes in the lead-up to the campaign.
The referendum campaign asks those who vote, “Do you want our public hospital services to be privatized to for-profit hospitals and clinics?”
The campaign collects information like voters’ names, addresses, and postal codes in an effort to verify identities and avoid double-voting.
The health coalition represents more than 500 member organizations including unions, patients’ organizations, and seniors and student groups, as well as individual members.
The campaign comes as leaders across Northwestern Ontario are raising serious concerns over staffing shortages, warning emergency rooms at smaller regional hospitals could be forced to close over the summer.
Some, like Terrace Bay mayor Paul Malashewski, have explicitly endorsed the health coalition referendum campaign.
Both the Ontario Medical Association, representing the province’s doctors, and the Ontario Hospital Association have supported the legislation, saying it will help reduce wait times.
The OMA has called on the government to encourage more independent clinics, but previously suggested they be run as non-profits.
OMA officials have played down the fact for-profit organizations will be allowed, noting the government’s promise that procedures will be covered by OHIP, and arguing public access to health services – not public provision of those services – is the priority.
Critics have suggested the OMA’s position reflects the fact that physicians could benefit from the changes, with private clinics potentially offering better compensation.
Residents can vote online or find a list of in-person voting locations at the OHC website.
The organization will announce the results of the vote on Tuesday in Toronto, while the Thunder Bay Health Coalition will also share local numbers.
The group also collected some votes in advance through workplace polls held in partnership with labour unions.
With files from Katie Nicholls