Ontario’s overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded hospitals are already challenged under the strain of a growing and aging population and as a result, they are “severely disadvantaged at times of viral global outbreaks, like the Coronavirus now spread to North America from China,” says Michael Hurley, the president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU).

“Today, Ontario has the fewest beds and staff in its hospitals of any province and the current Progressive Conservative budget plan means deeper cuts. At a time when the hospitals will be expected to increase capacity and will have many additional costs for increased staffing (for special equipment, as workers are quarantined and/or services like nursing and cleaning are ramped up) it is time for the provincial government to step up with funding at least equal to the hospitals real operating costs,” says Hurley.

There is growing agreement that overcrowding is a key vulnerability for Ontario hospitals, which have the fewest beds and staff to population of any province. Ontario hospitals performed weakly during the SARS outbreak, partially because underfunding, overcrowding, a hierarchical command structure and a systemic reliance on part time employment left the institutions exposed to the powerful virus, an inquest into that outbreak concluded.

Although Ontario’s Premier and health minister have promised to end overcrowding and “hallway health care”, hospitals are under real funding cuts of 3 per cent in 2019 and for each of the next 5 years (for a total of 15 per cent by 2024) the government’s own figures show. “Hospitals, patients and staff are suffering, they are paying the price of this underfunding,” says Hurley.

Routinely Ontario patients are given less time to convalesce in hospital. Data shows that the rest of Canada has 31.2 per cent more inpatient days per 1000 population than Ontario. Since the election of the PCs in June 2018 emergency room wait times for patients admitted to hospital increased 2.2 hours (to 16.6 hours) by November 2019.  This is a 15.3 per cent increase.  At the same time, the Ontario re-admission rate and in-hospital sepsis rate are 2.1 per cent and 17.9 per cent higher than the Canadian average.  

OCHU has called for a 5.3 per cent increase in hospital funding in 2020.

 “The provincial government must learn from the leadership of the former government displayed during the Ebola crisis and quickly pull together the leadership of its key hospital institutions and the representatives of its workforce to develop a viable battle plan to deal with the risks posed by the Coronavirus. Finally, it is hospital staff working with patients suspected of carrying the virus must have the same access to protective equipment as their colleagues do in China. In the Congo – this was not the case during the Ebola crisis,” says Hurley.