06/25/2015 04:02 EDT | Updated 06/25/2016 05:59 EDT

Ontario aims to increase access to gender reassignment surgeries: source

TORONTO - The Ontario government is taking steps meant to increase access to gender reassignment surgeries as increasing demand for the procedure has left transgender people facing a lengthy wait, a government source said Thursday.

Only one facility, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, is currently authorized to approve patients for surgery covered by health insurance.

But a source close to Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins told The Canadian Press the province is looking to increase the number of sites that can greenlight the surgery.

The government also plans to bolster support to CAMH, which said it has roughly 970 patients on the waiting list for gender reassignment surgeries and receives up to 100 referrals per month.

CAMH's president, Catherine Zahn, said the heightened public awareness of transgender issues may have partly caused the uptick in referrals.

With the recent media attention on Caitlyn Jenner and her Vanity Fair cover, Zahn said transgender people may feel more encouraged to come forward.

"It's probably for a number of reasons, but not the least of which is that there is increasing acceptance of health-care rights, people who are seeking gender reassignment, and increasing openness to be talking about it," she said.

The Ontario Health Insurance Plan does not cover gender reassignment surgeries unless the patient is approved by CAMH. But it can take months or years before CAMH can see patients for initial appointments.

Zahn said CAMH is looking to increase both the amount of assessments the facility can handle, and the amount of designated sites that can approve patients for the surgery.

Premier Kathleen Wynne said Thursday the wait times were "of concern," and said the Ministry of Health is aware of the problem. The health-care system must be transformed to accommodate the amount of procedures needed by not only transgender people, but the aging Ontario population, she said.

"If you look across the health system, we're dealing with a health system that's got a lot of demands on it, and so we've got a number of issues that we're working on to make sure that people get procedures — all kinds of procedures — across the health system that they need," Wynne said.

Health Minister Eric Hoskins said in a statement that his ministry is looking into the issue and will announce plans to reduce the wait times soon.

In an open letter to Hoskins, NDP health critic France Gelinas called for the government to take urgent action to make the surgeries more accessible. She criticized the current regulations for marginalizing transgender people, leaving them at risk of depression or suicide should they face discrimination, harassment or violence.

"It is heart-breaking and it is wrong that vulnerable individuals should be confronted by barriers to care that make it more difficult to access the health care services they need," Gelinas said.