Ontario Has a Plan to Stay Open Now, Plus a New Benefits Panel

People are probably pretty aware that Ontario had to struggle to respond to the pandemic when COVID-19 broke out here in March 2020. With the pandemic in recline, it seems appropriate to start talking about the future, and the Government of Ontario announced Tuesday morning their “Plan to Stay Open”, a series of measures meant to make sure Ontario’s healthcare and procurement systems are ready for the next pandemic.

“We can never go back to previous governments’ chronic underfunding of health care and inadequate emergency preparedness that brought our health care system to the brink and caused so much disruption in our daily lives,” said President of the Treasury Board Prabmeet Sarkaria in a statement. “Our hardworking families, dedicated health care workers and job-creating businesses deserve a plan that will keep Ontario open, safe and prepared.”

Among the new directions is $142 million for something called the “Learn and Stay” grant, which will fund, in part, two more years of the Community Commitment Program for Nurses, where 1,500 new nursing graduates will get their tuition reimbursed if they commit to being a practicing nurse in an underserviced community for  two years.

The new bill also proposes to expand the number of position in Ontario’s medical schools with 295 new postgrad positions, and 160 new undergrad positions over the next five years at Ontario’s six medical schools including the new Ryerson medical school being created in Brampton. For foreign trained medical professionals, the government will make it easier for them to get certified to practice in Canada. and those temporary wage enhancements for personal support workers (PSWs) are now going to become permanent.

Guelph MPP and Green Party leader Mike Schreiner voiced his support for making the pay raise for PSWs permanent, but there was also another matter of compensation on his mind after this morning’s announcement.

“Doug Ford needs to immediately repeal Bill 124 so health-care workers can bargain for a fair wage and important benefits like mental health supports. That’s the best way to shore up the gaping holes in Ontario’s health system and address the staffing crisis,” Schreiner said in a statement. “Repealing Bill 124 is a key step that will help address the current health crisis, prepare us for future public health emergencies, and build a more resilient, caring and healthy Ontario.”

In terms of the healthcare infrastructure for the next pandemic, the Ontario government also wants to take steps to ensure that the province is capable of domestic production for its PPE and critical supplies and equipment (CSE) needs. That means 93 per cent of the spending in those categories will go to Ontario and Canadian-based manufacturers for the next 18 months.

Along with medical supplies, the “Plan to Stay Open” plan will see spending on 50 new capital construction projects that will add 3,000 new beds over the next 10 years in Ontario’s hospitals.

“While the pandemic is not over, we are now in a place where we can use the lessons learned over the past two years and take actions to ensure our health system is even better, stronger and more resilient in the face of any future challenge,” said Minister of Health Christine Elliott. “Our government is making investments to keep Ontario open, support growing demands and address longstanding challenges in patient care to ensure Ontarians continue to have access to safe, high-quality health care now and in the future.”

In other news from the Provincial government on Tuesday, Queen’s Park announced the appointment of five experts to new panel that will look at expanding health benefits to millions of Ontarians who presently don’t have any medical coverage beyond basic needs covered by OHIP.

“Access to basic necessities like dental care and affordable medication shouldn’t be determined by whether or not you work a nine-to-five job, but all-too-often it is,” said Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton in a statement. “Today’s announcement is another historic step forward, as Ontario continues to rebalance the scales and give workers the protection and confidence they need to provide for their families and build stronger communities for us all.”

The panel’s goal is to find the gaps in coverage for things like dental and vision benefits, with particular focus on part-time workers and people with precarious employment or work in the gig economy. The government’s announcement doesn’t outline any specific direction, like whether or not there will be a public option or if these benefits will continue to be provided by private insurers, but the panel has until the summer of 2023 to deliver their recommendations.

The members of the new panel include VP of Public Policy at CSA Group Sunil Johal, partner at McCarthy Tétrault Brad Nicpon, senior partner and managing director at Aon Wealth Solutions Allan Shapira, and professional sommelier Marlayna Perrone. Susan McArthur, the co-founder and executive chair of LockDocs Inc., who will serve as the panel’s chair.

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