09/13/2011 01:29 EDT | Updated 01/12/2012 02:21 EST

Ontario party leaders urged to keep health care top-of-mind during election race

TORONTO - Ontario's politicians were urged to stop hospital cuts and privatization and make health care a campaign priority at a rally Tuesday at the legislature.

Organizers say hundreds of people were bused to Toronto from across Ontario for the protest and short march. Many waved banners and signs reading: "I am voting for health care" or "Your Hospital Cuts Threaten Our Health."

Seniors, health-care workers and union members called for an end to hospital closures, bed closures, staff cuts and privatization of health services.

Rally organizer Natalie Mehra with the Ontario Health Coalition said the province has serious problems with access to care and all the political parties need to detail where they stand.

Ontario has seen 18,500 hospital beds cut since 1990 and has 24,000 people on the waiting list for nursing home beds and 10,000 waiting for home care, she said.

"Will the next government be reopening closed hospital beds and services?" she said. "How do they really intend to cut emergency wait times in half without actually opening beds to admit those patients into?"

It's not enough for the parties to say they support public health care while coming up with funding plans that will result in bed closures and not improve access to care outside hospitals, said Mehra.

Linda Haslam-Stroud, president of the Ontario Nurses' Association, said her members still recall the 1990s, when thousands of nursing jobs were cut and 28 hospitals closed under the Mike Harris Tory government.

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak was part of that, she said, adding she's concerned about nurses and hospital beds being cut again if his party wins the Oct. 6 vote.

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 and create 5,000 new long-term care beds.

"We would focus that funding on front-line patient care, doctors and nurses," said Tory campaign spokesman Jason Lietaer.

But Health Minister Deb Matthews said the PCs have no plan for improving home care, focusing instead on pushing more seniors into facilities.

"The $14-billion hole in their platform would also mean unspecified cuts to health care," she said in an email.

Matthews also said the NDP has no practical plan to improve health care, but the Liberals have a strong record.

"We've hired more than 11,000 nurses, 1.3 million more Ontarians now have a family doctor and our wait times have gone from being the longest in Canada to the shortest," said Matthews.

The Liberals, rocked by the $1-billion eHealth scandal, have built 18 hospitals and promise to spend $6.4 billion more over four years on health care.

The NDP has pledged to cut emergency wait times in half and eliminate the wait list for long-term care or home care by funding an additional one million hours of home care over four years.

Both the Tories and NDP also say they'd dismantle local health integration networks and replace them with another agency while the Liberals would keep LHINs.