The results are in from voting booths set up across Niagara by volunteers with the Niagara Health Coalition.
Almost 120 volunteers ran more than 50 voting stations across Niagara last week, giving visitors a chance to express their opinion about the provincial government’s passing of Bill 60, The Your Health Act 2023, which received royal assent on May 18.
The Ontario Health Coalition, along with the Niagara group led by activist and retired teacher Sue Hotte, are concerned that the new law will lead to the proliferation of private health clinics across the province, putting a further strain on public health systems. Voting booths similar to those in Niagara were happening this weekend across Ontario.
The Niagara ballot contained two questions:
1 Do you want our public hospital services to be privatized to for-profit hospitals and clinics?
2 Do you want all of the existing sites and services of the Niagara hospitals to be maintained, protected and improved without any further cuts or closures?
Ontarians also had a chance to complete a ballot online, though only the first question was included there.
Overwhelmingly, participants voted against privatized healthcare and for the continuation of current service levels at all existing public health facilities in the region.
In a Tuesday morning press release, the Niagara Coalition revealed the results of the polls across the region. On question number one, 17,123 people voted no and 404 voted yes. On question number two, the votes were 10,042 for yes to maintaining our hospitals and 197 for no.
“We’re happy with the turnout,” Hotte said Tuesday afternoon. “We only had four weeks to get the word out, and Niagara is a big area. For me, the turnout is really good. In one town I think more people turned out to vote for this than for the last election.”
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, a Queen Street voting booth set up by the Niagara Health Coalition Friday attracted curious visitors, many from across the province, throughout the day.
The NOTL booth was set up just after 9 a.m. on the east side of the Court House by Pamela Wilson and Peggy Hooke. Unfortunately, they had chosen the spot usually occupied by the Niagara-on-the-Lake Ambassadors and were asked to move at around noon.
NOTL residents Barb Cowie and Jennifer Roberts took over on the other side of the Court House after that, and told The Local, a sister publication of ThoroldToday, that there had been a steady stream of about 30 voters in their first 90 minutes.
“A lot of people who have stopped by aren’t from Ontario,” said Cowie. “But those who are have been telling us they were happy we’re here as they hadn’t voted online yet.”
Gerda Ryckaert of St. Catharines was one of the voters who stopped by the booth Friday afternoon.
“My mother and father died of cancer,” said Ryckaert. “I know how important it is for us to have services and friendly, helpful people in our hospitals. I am sure everybody there is so stressed and pressured there right now. This bill makes me worry that we may end up having to pay for services. Healthcare should be equal for everyone.”
Irene Rutt of NOTL said she was worried about the effect the bill will have on hospital staffing.
“It’s just going to take nurses and doctors from the hospitals,” she lamented. “It’s going to drain these services out of our public hospitals. And it’s important to keep local services open. We are an aging population here, we need access to healthcare.”
Co-workers Rachel LaFrance of Stoney Creek and Summer Thorp of London, Ontario were visiting NOTL on a day off.
“I work in healthcare and procurement,” said LaFrance. “The government needs to support our local hospitals and our people. Pulling staff away from an already short-staffed
facility to work in private facilities will just create further issues with capacity and patient-nurse ratios. That’s a safety issue.”
LaFrance fears Ontario’s health system under Bill 60 will become similar to what Americans deal with south of the border.
“What we have is so much better than there,” she added. “We need to be pouring our money into our institutions rather than taking it out. This runs the risk of increased healthcare costs as certain agencies and vendors will get more business and they will raise their prices. In a public health system, we answer to the taxpayers.”
Thorp’s role in healthcare is to create working relationships between the community and the institutions.
“There’s this misguided expectation that private healthcare will be the panacea for everything,” she said. “But there isn’t any contingency planning, especially for the vulnerable populations that I am working for. Privileged people will jump the cue, they’ll push their advantage and leave out the same people who are always left out.”
“It blows my mind that we still have such a shortage of family doctors,” added LaFrance. “And foreign doctors shouldn’t be driving Ubers. They should be able to practise their profession in Canada. We need to eliminate these wait lists for doctors.”
The hope, of course, is that if enough Ontarians express their displeasure with the new law it will force the Ford government to rethink its implementation.
“The people have spoken and are sending a message loud and clear to the Premier and the Minister of Health,” said Tuesday’s press release. “People were able to have a say about Ford’s plan. The results show how strongly they feel. Do not privatize our hospital services and fund our hospitals so that all services and sites are maintained and enhanced.”
At press time full provincial results of the referendum were not yet available.
However, Hotte told The Local that she and other members of the Niagara Coalition planned to head to Queen’s Park with their ballots Wednesday afternoon. There, they expected to gather with other coalitions from across Ontario to form a mountain out of the ballots to demonstrate to the Conservative government
the number of Ontario residents who oppose an expansion of private health care services.