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Ontario's Opposition leader visits Sault to hear Group Health concerns firsthand

'The government isn't stepping forward to support them, they're not listening': Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles promises to fight for Group Health patients at Queen's Park
L-R Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas and NDP leader Marit Stiles photographed in Sault Ste. Marie during a media availability on Wednesday. The pair spent the day listening to concerns about the impending de-rostering of over 10,000 patients of the Group Health Centre.

Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles spent much of Wednesday in Sault Ste. Marie on a fact-finding mission examining the cause and effects of the primary care crisis affecting thousands in the city.

The recent news that 10,000 patients of the Group Health Centre (GHC) will be de-rostered quickly made it to Queen's Park, soon after the news broke in January. 

On Wednesday, the Group Health Centre confirmed the exact number of patients who will soon their primary care provider: 10,176.

Stiles and Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas spent part of the morning at GHC listening to the concerns of its leadership, including president and CEO Lil Silvano.

"We heard this morning that they have given the government a solution, they know what they need and the government so far has refused to to go there,” said Stiles, at a media availability after here meeting with GHC brass. 

"They know what it's going to take to fix this so they can continue to provide care to people in the Sault — excellent care — but the government isn't stepping forward to support them," she added. "They're not listening."

In a sit-down interview with SooToday on Tuesday, Silvano revealed that funding was recently denied for one of the requests GHC has made to the province. That request — $3 million in ongoing funding for an expression of interest for expanding and enhancing GHC's Interprofessional Primary Care Team — was included in a January letter to MPP Ross Romano and Ontario’s Ministry of Health.

The remainder of the almost $11 million total funding request has also not been fulfilled. GHC has said that money will not stop the 10,176 de-rostered patients from losing their primary care provider on May 31, but it will help to stabilize another 6,000 patients at risk of having the same thing happen to them in the near future.

Gelinas, who is the NDP critic for Health, said the GHC and Family Health Teams throughout the province have not received a base funding increase in 12 years, while costs associated with providing that health care has soared over the same period of time.

"I would say it's a crisis in the making,” said Gelinas. “They [health care providers] have been asking for base budget increases even and if you don't keep up with inflation at least increase a little bit — and nothing has come.”

The GHC model is unique in Ontario, with over 60,000 patients currently enrolled — a majority of them living in the Sault and surrounding area. Stiles said many other primary care providers across the province are having to de-roster a similar percentage of patients when doctors retire or walk away from the profession, but the GHC’s size makes it a much more dramatic statement.

”It’s partly the nature of it being so large that it's kind of a shock to know all of them — 10,000 people — but it is absolutely consistent with what we're seeing across the province,” said Stiles.

After the media availability, Stiles and Gelinas met with local city councillors before hosting a roundtable discussion with steelworkers, unionized nurses and patients who are about to lose their primary care provider. Stiles said she plans to take those concerns back to Queen’s Park to advocate and push the government for solutions.

”We are here to listen a little bit more, to hear what the priorities are, to hear where they think things are at so we can most effectively advocate for the Group Health Centre and for the people of Sault Ste. Marie,” said Stiles.

Stiles said she is concerned that the current health care crisis is being manufactured by the Ontario PC government to allow it to add more privatized health care solutions to the system as relief.

"They’re starving the system and the vultures have been circling for many, many years looking for their opportunity to take their place in our health care system,” she said.

“We think we can push them back on their heels and one of the ways we do that is by pointing out to people that this is a choice they're making — that it would actually cost the system less and be more effective and treat more people if we invested those dollars in our public hospitals and in our public clinics,” she added.

What is most frustrating, said Stiles, is the Ontario PC government just presented a provincial budget with a projected deficit of almost $10 billion — more than triple from last year. 

“This is not a government that isn't spending money,” said Stiles. “The question is: 'Are they spending it in a responsible way?' And I think what we've seen is they are not. They waste our dollars on shareholder profits and private clinics.”

Gelinas said she is equally concerned about the prospect of additional privatization in the health care sector.

"Once you're sick, nothing else matters — your spouse is sick, your child is sick, your mom is sick — you will do anything you can, you will pay and you will go into debt,” said Gelinas. "There are lots of investors who don't want to provide care. They want to make money off the back of sick people because there's a lot of money to be made off the back of sick people.”

One of the reasons for the 2024 budget’s ballooning deficit is the back pay the government must hand out to many public sector workers who spent years with one per cent raises because of Bill 124. In February, the government repealed the act after losing a court case and appeal from labour organizations.

Stiles said for years the NDP has been trying to get the provincial government to rethink Bill 124.

”We told them this is never going to hold up in court. They refused to listen, they went ahead with freezing those wages for those health care workers and education workers and the problem is that now they're gonna have to pay,” she said.

The problem, said Stiles, is many of those workers left the province as a result of the one per cent pay freezes.

“We are literally paying the price in the budget but we've also lost a lot of those workers — they drove them out of the system — and now it's going to be very hard to to recruit them back,” she said.

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Kenneth Armstrong

About the Author: Kenneth Armstrong

Kenneth Armstrong is a news reporter and photojournalist who regularly covers municipal government, business and politics and photographs events, sports and features.
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