TORONTO — For the third straight day, Ontario's Liberal government, which is facing an election in about two months, pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on health care, promising Thursday to tackle overcrowding and long waits in the province's hospitals.
Premier Kathleen Wynne, whose Liberals are down in the polls and preparing to table a budget with a deficit that could be as high as $8 billion, defended the trio of announcements, saying they weren't unusual ahead of the province unveiling its fiscal plan next week.
"I think if you go back in your electronic calendars and look at the budgets we have brought in, every year in the pre-budget run-up we make it clear to the people of Ontario what it is we're going to do in that budget," she said. "This is not an unusual circumstance."
In its latest announcement, the government pledged to boost hospital funding by $822 million in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, a 4.6 per cent increase
Earlier this week, Wynne announced the government would expand its free pharmacare program to cover seniors at an annual cost of $575 million and promised to spend $2.1 billion over the next four years to rebuild Ontario's mental health system.
Wynne said the hospital funding announced Thursday is on top of a 3.2 per cent increase included in last year's provincial budget.
"This investment is going to mean people will get faster care in all of our hospitals around the province," she said.
Thursday's announcement comes after Ontario's Financial Accountability Office warned last week that without additional health spending, quality of care could be compromised in the future because of a growing and aging population.
In 2012, the province tried to slow health spending by imposing a four-year freeze on hospital funding, increasing hospital efficiency and by restraining wage growth in the sector.
Wynne said the government has attempted to address needs across the health care sector, not just within hospitals, but now is the time to re-invest in those facilities and the services they provide.
"The new funding will improve access to crucial procedures like hip and knee replacements, ensure faster access to specialists like cardiologists," she said. This investment will reduce wait times and provide more critical care, chemotherapy and MRI scans."
Progressive Conservative finance critic Lisa MacLeod said the series of funding announcements is an attempt by an unpopular government to bolster its chances of re-election.
"This is a last ditch effort for the Liberals to try and save their seats," she said. "They're just spending more money from individuals across Ontario to pay for their pre-election platform."
MacLeod pointed to years of austerity budgeting in the hospital sector as evidence the government is only getting serious about hospital overcrowding ahead of the spring vote.
"Do I take the Liberal's seriously? No," she said. "There's been a number of cuts in health care across the province as a result of this Liberal government."
NDP health critic Frances Gelinas said even with the cash infusion announced Thursday, the funding still falls $100 million short of what hospitals need to keep up with inflationary costs for the next fiscal year.
"When (the government) froze hospital budgets for the first year, hospitals sort of muddled through," she said. "They ... made some changes and did pretty good. For year two, three, four ... it was a complete disaster. I visit hospitals regularly, I cannot believe that we have sunk so low."
Ontario Hospital Association President Anthony Dale called the funding welcome news but said what's really needed is a long-term, stable agreement to cover cost increases for hospitals.
"We have to get onto a more appropriate and effective planning cycle," he said. "It's not sexy, it's not going to get anyone elected, but it's absolutely essential if we're going to pull ourselves out of this situation with hospital over-capacity and hallway medicine."