HAMILTON - Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak reaffirmed his promise to pump billions into Ontario's health-care system Sunday, but his critics say he can't be trusted not to impose sweeping cuts similar to those made by former Tory premier Mike Harris.
In touting his party's health-care platform, Hudak vowed to slash only the "bloated bureaucracy" he said funnels millions of dollars away from those seeking medical treatment.
"Too many dollars have been taken out of patient care and put into bureaucracies or the pockets of fancy consultants who happen to have the right connections," he said during a campaign stop at St. Joseph's hospital in Hamilton.
Hudak gave little detail on how he would cut waste in health care other than dismantling the local health integration networks, known as LHINs, which have cost $300 million since they were established in 2007.
The Liberals were quick to suggest a Tory victory in the Oct. 6 election could mean a return to the cost-cutting agenda that saw 28 hospitals close and thousands of nurses lose their jobs under Harris.
"He's saying exactly what Mike Harris said before: 'Trust me, I'll find it somewhere else, I won't cut health care or education,'" Health Minister Deb Matthews said at a 9-11 memorial event in London, Ont.
"It simply is not credible," she said.
The Tories have pledged that if elected, they'll boost health-care spending by $6.1 billion by the end of their four-year term.
They also promised to ramp up education funding by $2 billion over the same period.
At the same time, they plan to chop government spending by two per cent each year, starting with $600 million in the first year.
The Liberals maintain there is a $14-billion gap in the Tory platform that would force the party to slash public services or raise taxes.
Matthews opposed the Conservatives' proposal to kill the LHINs, calling it a "very big mistake" that would prevent the public from weighing in on important health-care decisions.
What's more, she said, "I worry that what he's trying to do by shutting down the LHINs is actually to make it possible to make the kind of cuts he will have to make in order to govern."
It's not the first time Hudak has faced the spectre of Harris and his Common Sense Revolution that slashed government spending in the province in the 1990s.
But Hudak, who served as junior health minister during the Harris years, has bristled at the suggestion he would make widespread cuts to hospitals, saying his own family's experiences have cemented his commitment to public and universal health care.
His daughter Miller was born premature in the middle of 2007 election campaign and she recently spent time in hospital with an illness Hudak prefers to keep private.
"I personally know from my family's experience how important it is to have that kind of quality health care when and where you need it," said Hudak, adding that three-year-old Miller received excellent care this summer at Toronto's Hospital For Sick Children.
The Conservative platform includes promises to monitor and report on the performance of the province's 211 hospitals and use the results to set the salaries of hospital executives.
The Liberals recently passed similar legislation that ties the wages of chief executive officers at Ontario hospitals to performance targets.
France Gelinas, health critic for the NDP, said the pay-for-performance program hasn't thinned out hospital executives' paycheques.
She also noted the Liberals and the Conservatives both voted against an NDP motion to cap the salaries of hospital CEOs at twice that of the premier.