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The Ontario Liberal government says benchmarks for wait times will show how well they are improving access to health care. But in their December 2005 release, you can’t find the word public or public delivery. Instead, you get this quote from Health Minister George Smitherman: “Establishing common benchmarks gives Canadians the ability to see how well we are improving access for selected health services.” The document also contains much talk about “effective leadership, efficiency, informed options, leading experts and evidence-based benchmarks.” Find release at: www.health.gov.on.ca/english/media/news_releases/archives/nr_05/nr_121205.pdf.

Given that Ontario and many other provinces are not even talking about bolstering staffing levels or investing in hospitals, we can only expect failure to reach those benchmarks. When that happens, we’ll hear the inevitable pleas for more privatization to “fix” the problem.

Promising a reduction in wait times, without promising to fix the ongoing problems that cause excessive delays, is an endgame in which public health care becomes collateral damage.

Brian Postl, appointed as the federal government’s wait times adviser, has suggested that it’s difficult to show how long a patient can safely wait for procedures such as radiation therapy, hip and knee replacements, breast and cervical cancer screening. However, Postl then retracted his comments and towed the government line by insisting that wait times can and should be set.

No matter what kind of monumental effort – whether real or part of a public relations campaign – goes into setting and reaching wait time benchmarks, there is no getting around the fact that the health care system needs more doctors, nurses, primary health care professionals and a firm commitment to public delivery.

Roy Romanow, after running the exhaustive royal commission on health care in 2002, concluded that reinvestment in the public system is the key to cutting wait times. “Let’s not make wait lists the be all and end all,” he has said. “I know why they are, because they’re the most visible thing. But the health care system is far more complicated than that.”

(With files from The Canadian Press, Dec. 12, 2005)