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INSIGHTS: Wynne’s health-care Hail Mary

NELSON: Wynne’s health-care Hail Mary

By Patrick Nelson, Principal at Santis Health

(Originally published in the Toronto Sun on March 27, 2018)

It’s the fourth quarter and the Ontario Liberals need a few touchdowns.

Premier Kathleen Wynne has called an audible in the dying seconds of the game. With a provincial election looming, she’s spent the last week, making billions of dollars in announcements in new money for health care. She’s ditched the middle road playbook she’s been using for the last five years – balance the budget and hold the line on social services spending – and instead will run deficits to spend more on health services.

It’s a risky strategy.

The longer a government is in power, the harder it is to keep showing meaningful progress, especially in health care.

In addition, even if a government magically cures cancer and puts an end to wait times altogether, there’s always another fire ready to start in health. But with the election less than eleven weeks away, Wynne is trying to establish herself as the leader best able to defend and fix our health system.

Following a throne speech focused on health last week, she has been going on a pre-budget health-spending spree.

On Tuesday it was money for seniors and drugs. On Wednesday it was billions more for mental health care (long overdue), and on Thursday she announced $850 million more for hospitals. This is in addition to earlier commitments to build more long-term care beds, and free pharmacare for kids under 25.

And her message to the electorate throughout these announcements? If you vote for us, we’ll fix the health system. Vote for the other guy (namely newly elected Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford), and you’ll see years of cuts and your health care will get worse.

But here’s the thing about this new strategy. Since she was elected in 2013, Wynne’s government has done precisely the opposite. Under the banner of balancing the budget, her government has held the line on social services, most notably on health spending.

Ontario’s health budget has seen an average annual growth rate of just over 2.1% under Wynne’s watch. That’s the lowest growth in health spending in decades.

Even former Premier Mike Harris, often cited for massive cuts to health spending, made annual average investments of almost 4.8% to the health Ministry. Wynne’s predecessor, Dalton McGuinty averaged 6.3%.

But voters are unlikely to be talking at the kitchen table about annual percentage increases and who spent more. They will think about their real-life experiences with the health system.

It’s difficult to miss media stories from across the province about hospital over-crowding and growing wait times.

Add to this a growing list of providers who are raising concerns about the woes of the system, including nurses and doctors, the latter of whom have been without a contract since 2013 and have just launched an aggressive advertising campaign about wait times.

Will voters ignore the fact that health care hasn’t been a priority for Wynne and her government until now? Time will tell.

What is certain is that the money being promised won’t flow quickly enough to fix the current problems. And even it did, you can’t hire more nurses and build new capacity in the system fast enough to show a demonstrable difference over the next eleven weeks.

Ford and the Ontario PCs will be hoping to keep the focus on Wynne’s record and not on the shiny new trinkets she’s putting in the health care window. Regardless of the past, it’s clear that Ontario Liberal strategists think the best path to victory on June 7 will be to focus on new spending and on ‘fixing’ health care.

It’s a long shot, but Wynne’s made some Hail Mary’s before.