If North Bay, Sudbury, Kenora, Thunder Bay and Timmins were in the middle of a by-election like Sault Ste. Marie, would their hospitals see a similar funding increase, asked Michael Hurley president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE) in Sudbury today.

While the majority of northern Ontario hospitals, including Sudbury’s Health Sciences North (HSN) – a regional hospital with a cancer centre – got $5.8 million or about a 2 per cent funding increase, the Sault Area Hospital saw a 3.8 per cent allocation that amounts to $5.5 million in 2017.

Although the Sault Area Hospital fared better than other northern hospitals, the money it received in the throes of the by-election “the Liberals are desperate to win, is still not enough to restore staff, beds and services that have been cut following eight years shrinking provincial funding for hospitals,” Hurley said.

Following years of zero base funding increases, the consensus among health care stakeholders from the association representing hospitals to front line staff unions is that hospitals need a minimum of about a 5 per cent increase in funding, simply to maintain existing services. But in its April budget the provincial Liberal government provided an underwhelming province-wide funding increase of 3.1 per cent for hospitals. Northern hospitals however are only getting 2 per cent – with the notable exception of the Sault.

In 2016-17 the Liberals planned to increase funding 2 per cent, but were forced by community and labour campaigns focused on patient need to increase funding 3.5 per cent by the end of the year. “Like last year, communities have to drive hospital funding higher this year as well,” Hurley says, “Two per cent just won’t do.”

Based on the last available data, to bring hospitals just to last year’s 3.5 per cent, funding for HSN would need to increase by $10.15 million, not the $5.8 million announced by the local Liberal MPP last week.

Similarly, North Bay Regional Health Centre’s allocation of $3.67 million would need to go up to $6.4 million; Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre given $4 million would need to see an increase to $7 million; Lake of the Woods in Kenora would need funding increased from $555,011 to $971,000 and Timmins and District Hospital up to $2.38 million from $1.36 million.

The northern hospital funding gap may grow next year. The Ontario government has promised an overall 4.7 per cent increase for health care in 2018-19. This is closer to the actual cost pressures that hospitals face. But if this year’s 2 per cent approach is any indication, northern hospitals will not see anything like that, Hurley said.

Hospitals in the north are facing significant challenges including higher rates of disease and poverty and “we believe they all deserve increased funding to at least meet operating costs. We will continue to push for that and for stable multi-year funding. We are also optimistic that northern communities will demand funding for their hospitals return to levels at real cost pressures,” said Hurley in outlining plans for a large community rally aimed at increasing hospital funding to 5 per cent.