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'We'll step up': Premier vows action on ER wait times

The premier first promised to end hallway health care five years ago
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend an announcement at Seneca College, in King City, Ont., Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

Doug Ford said Friday he wants wait times in emergency rooms to go down to one hour and promised to commit the funding necessary to make it happen.

The premier made the comments alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a press conference announcing the signing of a bilateral health agreement that will see more than $3 billion flow to Ontario over three years for the province to use to expand team-based health care, increase spots in medical education programs, improve mental health care and sign onto a health data sharing regime, among other priorities.

Ford was responding to a question from The Trillium about data that show one in ten Ontario patients who are admitted to hospitals from emergency departments are waiting more than two days for a bed, leaving emergency departments packed with patients on stretchers waiting for the care they need. The same data show that one in ten patients who aren't admitted spends six to eight hours, or more, in the emergency department, depending on the severity of their need.

"We need the co-operation from everyone to make sure that, if you go in there, rather than four hours, or six hours, or eight hours waiting — because I'm getting calls every day — let's talk it down to an hour," said Ford.

He also said he would talk to the Ontario Medical Association about getting more doctors into emergency departments. 

"What do you need? Do you need more doctors? Do you need more money? What is it that you need? And we'll step up to the plate."

According to emergency physicians who spoke with The Trillium in January, the problem causing long waits in emergency departments for admitted patients is the lack of in-patient beds. The lack of physicians — and nursing staff — is also a problem, particularly in rural Ontario, and has contributed to permanent and temporary closures of emergency departments.

Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones added that the province has added 3,000 funded hospital beds to the system and 3,500 more are in the works, and her government has passed legislation making it easier for patients to be put into long-term care.

Trudeau weighed in as well, saying the whole country is experiencing the same pressures as Ontario.

"That's why, last year, the federal government sat down with the 10 premiers of provinces and three premiers of territories and agreed to a $200-billion investment in our health care systems across the country over the next years," he said. "Now, health care is delivered by the provinces — and that's important, they have the expertise on it — the federal government has an important role to play in supporting and helping fund that."

The agreement that was formalized Friday was in the works for years, with the country's premiers lobbying for a new health accord prior to and throughout the pandemic. Ontario and the federal government agreed to it in principle a year ago.

Even supporters of the health funding agreement noted it was a long time coming.

Doris Grinspun, chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, lauded the co-operation between the province and the federal government and spoke about its potential to transform primary care in Ontario.

But she said it took too long.

"It should have happened the moment the pandemic struck," she said. "But we cannot go back on the clock." 

Ford was first elected in 2018 on a promise to end hallway health care — patients experiencing long waits on stretchers in emergency departments — within a year.

He seemed to recommit to that on Friday.

"I'm going to be zoned in on these emergency departments," Ford said. "I'll put the money in that is needed."

Anthony Dale, head of the Ontario Hospital Association, told The Trillium that the Ford government has "presided over the largest of expansion in health services in living memory," with a significant expansion of acute and post-acute hospital beds.

"The challenge we have is that the population is growing so quickly, and its needs are changing so quickly, that we're making up for lost time," he said.

The federal-provincial announcement is largely focused outside of hospitals — on primary care and mental health care, particularly — but will improve overall wellness in Ontario, he said. It also demonstrates " a common collective understanding of the scale of the challenge ahead," something that Dale said will be needed, as further commitments will be needed, to keep up with the province's health-care demands.

This story was updated with comments from Anthony Dale after its initial publication.

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Jessica Smith Cross

About the Author: Jessica Smith Cross

Reporting for Metro newspapers in five Canadian cities, as well as for CTV, the Guelph Mercury and the Turtle Island News. She made the leap to political journalism in 2016...
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