The province’s health budget will grow by $1.6 billion this year with more funds available to ease hospital overcrowding.
Finance Minister Charles Sousa said he has heard loud and clear from Ontarians that they want more spent on health.
“In the lead-up to this balanced budget, I travelled across Ontario to speak with people to hear what matters most to them. Everywhere I went, Ontarians told me to invest more in our health care, invest more in our hospitals. A balanced budget allows us to make these new investments,” he said in his budget speech.
Program funding for hospitals will be boosted by 3 per cent, or $518 million, to “keep wait times low and maintain access to elective surgeries,” budget documents state.
That is not as much as the cash-strapped sector had sought, but is more than the austerity level of funding it has received in recent years.
Hospitals will also receive additional capital funding to the tune of $20 billion over 10 years. This will be used to build new hospitals in Niagara, Windsor and the Weeneebayko area on the James Bay Coast.
The capital funding will also help cover the cost of redevelopment projects at Trillium Health Partners and Hamilton Health Sciences.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose party has been going to bat for hospitals in Question Period, said the budget is a disappointment for the sector.
“It will barely keep up with the rate of inflation. It falls more than $300 million short of what hospitals say they need,” she told a news conference, adding that the budget allotment does not undo the damage caused from firing nurses, cancelling surgeries and crowding ERs.
The total health budget is increasing to $53.8 billion in 2017-18, 3 per cent more than last year.
The government used the budget to announce that it will publicly fund the abortion pill, Mifegymiso. A woman can get a prescription for the drug from her family doctor and then have it filled at a pharmacy by showing her OHIP card. The province has not yet determined the overall cost of making the drug available.
Asked during a news conference if the abortion pill was included to bait the far right, Sousa responded: “We are trying to provide women with choice, with a safe choice.”
There was much focus in the budget on reducing wait times. The province plans to invest an additional $245 million over three years in “enhanced referral pathways” for treatment of back pain and other bone and joint conditions.
An extra $890 million will be spent over three years for faster access to procedures such as foot, knee, hip and cataract surgeries.
An $85 million investment over three years is aimed at reducing wait times for home care and long-term care. It will be used to enhance programs such as home nursing, personal support, physiotherapy and respite services.
Other health highlights include:
The budget includes plans to develop chronic pain management programs at 17 hospitals and community clinics.
There are also plans to enhance services for those affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
The government says it plans to increase health-care investments by $11 billion over the next three years.