03/06/2019 16:39 EST | Updated 03/06/2019 16:39 EST

Doug Ford's Cost-Cutting Could Hit Health-Care System Hard, Watchdog Warns

Health care is the single largest expense in Ontario’s budget.

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
Ontario Premier Doug Ford watches as Health Minister Christine Elliott speaks at an event at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto on Jan. 30, 2019.

TORONTO — Ontario's health-care system won't be the same if Premier Doug Ford tries to balance the budget by the end of his first term, the Financial Accountability Office (FAO) warned Wednesday.

To eliminate deficit spending before the next election, the government would have to trim $8.6 billion off annual health-care costs, the financial watchdog said in its 2019 assessment of health spending.

"Restraining health sector spending to this extent without compromising health care access or quality would be a significant challenge," the report said.

"Policy changes of this magnitude could have wide-ranging implications for Ontario's health-care system, and Ontarians would benefit from an informed debate on the Province's budget objectives and the trade-offs necessary to achieve them."

Ontario Financial Accountability Officer Peter Weltman answers questions at Queen's Park in Toronto on Dec. 10, 2018.

Health care is the biggest expense in Ontario's budget, making up 41 per cent of all spending at $61.3 billion this year.

"Unless people stop aging and the population stops growing," Ontario will need to inject another $12 billion into its annual health-care budget by 2022 just to maintain the services that exist now, financial accountability officer Peter Weltman told reporters.

Ford has said that his government "may" try to balance the budget by the end of its four-year mandate.

The Ontario government spends $12.3 billion more than it brings in every year, the FAO says, and the province spends more servicing the interest on its debt than it does on the justice system.

Health minister won't say if cuts are coming

Health Minister Christine Elliott refused to tell reporters whether the upcoming budget will include cuts to health-care spending to reduce the deficit.

"We anticipate that we are going to be able to put more people into frontline services," she said when asked if there will be cuts.

The government's new framework for health care will create a more efficient system, she said. Elliott introduced legislation on Feb. 26 to merge local health networks and other agencies into one "super agency" and let local service providers join together to create "health teams."

"That is going to change the landscape in health care," Elliott said.

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"We are still using faxes in health care. That's not an efficient way to deliver services and connect people to the care that they need."

Faxes alone won't be the answer, she said, but the new system will let patients book appointments online and have virtual assessments, which will save the government money.

According to Weltman's analysis, the cuts necessary to balance the budget equal about a third of the government's entire cost for hospitals.

The Ford government's first budget is expected this spring.

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