POLITICS
03/19/2018 12:30 EDT | Updated 03/19/2018 18:57 EDT

Ontario Throne Speech 2018: Liberals Pledge To Act On Hospital Wait Times, Mental Health

Kathleen Wynne's government will also table a budget this month.

Frank Gunn/CP
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks to media at Legislative Assembly of Ontario in Toronto on Jan. 25, 2018.

TORONTO — The final budget before a looming provincial election will offer measures to cut hospital wait times, lower child-care costs and expand mental-health services while reducing the overall deficit, the Ontario government said Monday.

The Liberal governments' speech from the throne, read out by Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdswell, offered no specific numbers for the promised investments, simply saying they would be announced in the March 28 budget.

But the speech outlined some of the government's priorities for the final parliamentary session before the June 7 election, a contest in which polls suggest the Liberals are trailing the Progressive Conservatives.

Health care is poised to be a major focus of the coming budget, the government said, promising "significant investments" in hospital operations with a view to reducing hospital wait times.

Similar funding will be earmarked to expand home-care services, mental-health and addictions care, the speech said.

The government also announced plans to expand the OHIP Plus program that currently offers free pharmacare to residents under the age of 25, saying it wants to make the program available to a larger swath of the population.

"Your government's plan for care and opportunity is the right way forward for Ontario's people, and Ontario's economy, because the well-being of both are intrinsically linked," Dowdswell told the legislature.

The speech also hinted at measures to address the cost of child care, which it identified as a "stumbling block" for many families.

It also contained promises for later in the child's life cycle, saying it would expand the program that currently offers free tuition to thousands of people.

Dowdswell said the 2018 budget will run a small deficit of one per cent and would map out "a clear path" back to balance.

Finance Minister Charles Sousa said it would be "precarious" to pursue a balanced budget and health-care supports simultaneously, adding that the current measures strike the best compromise.

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"We can continue to balance, or we could continue to make these other investments that stimulate economic growth as well," he said. "We're choosing to do that with a moderate deficit next year in order to accommodate all those areas."

The speech made no mention of rising hydro rates that have contributed to historically low popularity rates for Premier Kathleen Wynne and which are expected to be a key issue at the ballot box when voters go to the polls.

At least one opposition party promptly dismissed the Liberals' planned health-care measures as carrots dangled in anticipation of the looming vote.

New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath likened the plan to her own dental-care platform announced just days ago, which saw her promise to invest $1.2 billion on a dental program that would subsidize care for 4.5 million residents.

"The difference is New Democrats actually believe these things and will implement them upon being elected," Horwath said, adding that the Liberals often change their tune after they've already been voted in. "We believe in these things before elections and after elections."

Horwath has said the money for the dental care program, dubbed Ontario Benefits, would be raised through tax increases on corporations and wealthy individuals. She has said her government would run a deficit, but not provided additional details.