TORONTO - The New Democrats spent Friday pummelling a Liberal pledge asking doctors to accept a pay freeze, suggesting Premier Dalton McGuinty was targeting front-line heath care while hospital CEOs enjoyed outrageous wage hikes.
The move prompted the Liberals to paint NDP Leader Andrea Horwath as someone who didn't understand the health-care system or how much such a freeze would bring in savings.
Horwath lashed out at McGuinty's plan several times on Friday, saying she was surprised the Liberals would begin contract talks in such a way.
"We know that that's a bad way to start negotiations and it's a way that doesn't work," Horwath said at a campaign stop in London, Ont.
"I think we need to have an honest process of negotiations, one that doesn't necessarily say that the front line people — the nurses, the doctors, the home-care workers — are the ones that should be taking the financial hit."
McGuinty has said he'd ask Ontario's doctors to accept a two-year pay freeze once their contract runs out at the end of March, despite nurses and other heath-care workers recently having won wage increases.
The Liberals have called for a two-year wage freeze among the province's one million public sector workers, but have been having a hard time getting arbitrators to go along with it because no legislation was passed to enforce the freeze.
McGuinty told the Globe and Mail editorial board Thursday that he was convinced doctors would understand "where we find ourselves at this point in time" and noted the doctors' current agreement provided significant fee increases — 12.25 per cent over four years.
But Horwath blasted McGuinty's wage-freeze plan as one that hasn't worked in the past and won't work in the future.
When asked if a New Democrat government would rule out a wage freeze altogether however, Horwath wasn't as forthcoming.
"I don't think it's achievable to start a negotiations process by saying zero, by bringing that up as the start point. I think it's unfair and I think it's inappropriate," she said. "I believe that the better way to go is where you can have an assurance that the targets you set can be met."
The New Democrats used the Liberal pay freeze pledge as a springboard to promote their own health care platform Friday, with Horwath saying she would have liked McGuinty to commit to freezing the wages of the top executives at hospitals instead.
Capping the salary of hospital CEOs and other top executives at twice that of the premier is a key plank in the NDP's health-care platform. The party hopes the move will bring in $20 million in annual savings and is confident it can begin achieving the salary caps in its first year if it forms the government.
The Liberals claim the NDP has far overestimated the savings on such a move.
Health Minister Deb Matthews said Horwath's CEO salary cap would only save $3.7 million a year while the Liberal doctor pay freeze plan would save $350 million annually.
"It demonstrates her lack of understanding of the health-care systems," Matthews said in an interview. "I think it's really important that everyone does their share."
Matthews — who was "very hopeful" Ontario's doctors would go for the two-year salary freeze — said the doctors she has spoken to said their personal compensation is not the most important issue when it comes to securing the province's health-care system.
"We've asked a lot of people (to take wage freezes), and I don't know why doctors would be exempt from that and I don't know why Horwath thinks they would be exempt," Matthews said.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Medical Association, which negotiates on behalf of the province's doctors, hasn't directly reacted to the rhetoric coming from either party.
Association president Stewart Kennedy said Ontario's doctors are "well aware" of the rising cost of health care and the need to be fiscally responsible.
The doctors' current contract has been focused on initiatives to find family doctors for 500,000 additional patients. Since the contract was signed in April 2008, Kennedy said doctors have been found for more than 1.3 million patients.
"We've been working closely with government to find savings that won't negatively impact patient care," Kennedy said in a statement.
"We look forward to our negotiations with government and are confident that we can find mutually beneficial solutions for the current challenges in the health-care system."