Health Care On The Cutting Block: Ministry Hopes For Efficiency With Search And Destroy Tactics

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), August 1993

It’s search and destroy time at Ontario’s ministry of health: search out savings and destroy inefficiency and waste. But many remain apprehensive that not all the cuts are going to be logical and fear the province’s health and well-being will be affected. 

As part of the social contract deal, the Ontario Medical Association must find $20 million in cuts from the list of services covered by OHIP. The OMA and the provincial government are currently haggling over which procedures and examinations will be cut. 

“We look at services that aren’t medically necessary,” says health ministry spokesperson Layne Verbeek. “Because we were wealthier in the past, we were able to cover some services. We aren’t in that position now. But I don’t see how eliminating medically unnecessary treatments will affect the population.”

The fallout of the Rae government’s attempts to reign in costs and recover lost revenues may take years to unfold, but it is already apparent that Ontarians will be paying more. 

“Access to necessary treatment should not depend on a person’s ability to pay,” says health policy critic Carol Kushner. “What disturbs me about any delisting program is that virtually every medical service could be termed medially necessary. There are very few services that are an out-and-out waste of time.

“We often point to the fact that Ontario spends $200 million a year treating the common cold. Well, most of that is a waste of time. But delisting even that kind of service would be a detriment to the public’s health, because a small group of patients really do need to see a doctor when they have a cold.”

OMA spokesperson Jean Chow says it’s too early to pin down the exact cuts that will be made. “It’s a little premature to try and speculate what the final list will be.”

The newly-created Non-Tax Revenue Group is hard at work finding fees, fines and penalities the government can add or hike to boost revenue from this source from $5 billion to $10 billion a year. 

The spring budget saw the first hit, with the addition of $240 million in non-tax revenue. 

A radical reshaping of medicare is taking place. Private sector services – for which consumers pay directly or through insurance companies – now make up 34 per cent of Ontario’s health care funding, compared to 42 per cent in the United States, according to a recent study by the Canadian Medical Association. 

Health minister Ruth Grier has also floated the idea of widespread hospital closures. Both the Toronto and Windsor district health councils (DHCs) are carrying out feasibility studies on “reconfiguration.” The ministry is remaining tight-lipped about which hospitals will get the chop. 

“One suspects there’s room for efficiency – there are a lot of empty beds in a number of different places,” says ministry spokesperson Verbeek. 

“All hospitals are being reviewed, with a view to closing one or two hospitals,” says health planner Lisa Paolatto, who is working on a feasibility study on “reconfiguration” for the Essex County District Health Council, along with Toronto’s DHC. 

Closing hospitals could present a serious political hot potato for the government. In Britain, the Conservative government is still recovering from the bad feelings surrounding proposals to close world-renowned hospitals in the London area. The public feels great loyalty to local hospitals, a feeling that has been further fostered by hospital charities that raise millions a year from the communities’ good will. 

“This is going to open up new discussions of money between doctors and patients,” says Kushner. “Seniors are a unique group in Canada because they remember what it was like before medicare – what it was like not to be able to pay for the doctor, to forgo treatment that they thought was necessary. They understand the financial hardship that could occur if they were unlucky enough to have a family member who needs expensive medical treatment.”