As Ontario battled a triple-threat of respiratory illnesses in the fall of 2022, placing overwhelming strains on hospitals province-wide, the Ford government commissioned a public opinion poll on whether or not the health care system was in a state of crisis.
The poll, conducted for the Ontario government in late-October and early November and accessed by Global News, asked respondents a series of questions about the health-care system, including whether the news coverage was too negative and their views on the private delivery of public health care.
Questions were put to a representative sample of 1,000 Ontario adults by Léger through its online platform. The poll ran from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3, 2022, broad public opinion poll on various matters including government performance, education and health care.
The poll shows that a quarter of respondents chose the state of health care as their top priority in need of the greatest attention from the Ontario government, while 74 per cent agreed that “Ontario’s health care system is in crisis.”
Natalie Mehra, with the Ontario Health Coalition, called the poll on whether or not the health-care system was in crisis “infuriating.”
“How can they be polling, asking whether or not people think health care is in crisis when (it) is obviously completely in crisis?” she said.
“And the question is: why was the government not focusing its full and absolute attention on doing something to address the crisis?”
The same poll also asked people their views on the private delivery of publicly-funded health care, which seemed to precipitate changes the Ford government would make a few months later.
“To help reduce long wait times, I support using privately owned and run medical facilities, if they are publicly funded and patients don’t have to pay,” the poll stated.
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It found 22 per cent of people strongly agreed, while 33 per cent somewhat agreed.
But the question, some critics argued, was phrased to elicit a certain response.
“It’s a very biased, I think, very manipulative way to try and soften up the public for what they don’t want, which is to privatize our local public hospitals,” Mehra told Global News.
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In January, Ford and Health Minister Sylvia Jones unveiled a three-step plan to deliver more procedures at private clinics. Both stressed that the surgeons and tests will continue to be paid for by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.
There are about 206,000 patients waiting for surgical procedures, the province said.
The first stage of the plan involved adding 14,000 cataract surgeries through new centers in Windsor, Kitchener-Waterloo and Ottawa. The province said these surgeries will be performed with existing staff and will not take any from the hospital system.
Marit Stiles, the Ontario NDP Leader, said she believed the October and November polling question was an indication of future government policy.
“At a time when Ontarians were desperate for answers and solutions in the public health care system, this government was trying to figure out a way to sell it off,” she told Global News. “That’s what I think when I look at that poll.”
Stiles said the poll showed the Ford government was more concerned with “PR issues” and “looking good enough in the public’s eyes” than the immediate health-care issues.
“This isn’t a popularity contest for the government, this is about fixing the problems that people are dealing with every day,” she said.
The province has noted several policy changes to address health care issues in Ontario over fall and winter months.
At the beginning of 2023, new rules allowed pharmacists to prescribe medications for some common ailments, while changes to recruitment rules for nurses were also introduced to speed up the registration process.
In November, the health minister announced $183 million to make upgrades to 131 hospitals.
“Our government is making investments to ensure Ontario’s hospitals and community health infrastructure continue to be state-of-the-art facilities,” said Sylvia Jones, health minister, in a media release.
“This funding will also help build the capacity we need to end hallway health care and ensure people continue to receive world-class care.”
The polling fieldwork was done as Ontario hospitals struggled with a triple threat of respiratory viruses — COVID-19, Influenza and RSV spreading through the community in tandem.
On Nov. 14, less than two weeks after the poll work wrapped up, the Ministry of Health instructed emergency departments to prepare for “an extreme surge” in demand.
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With pediatric hospitals under particular strains, officials said creating extra capacity for children would impact other parts of the system. They said Ontario’s health care was “extraordinarily strained.”
The crisis plans to combat a surge in hospital demand, particularly from children, came as Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, made a plea for people to return to regular mask wearing.
Months earlier, in August, Jones had refused to call emergency room closures a crisis.
She disagreed with a reporter characterizing the closures as “unprecedented.”
“No, I’m sorry, it is not,” Jones said. “So when there are ebbs and flows of a high incidence of people who are taking vacations — rightly so — then we need to make sure that we have the systems in place.”
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The poll for the province also asked if respondents were getting the medical treatment they needed, if their last experience was positive and if “the negative things I heard about Ontario’s health care system” matched their experience.
Another statement – with which 37 per cent of respondents agreed in some form — said, “I think the news coverage of Ontario’s health care system is too focused on negative issues.”
— with files from The Canadian Press