TORONTO — Ontario plans to recruit more nurses for underserved communities, boost the pay of personal support workers and make it easier for foreign health professions to get a job.
The measures are among several detailed in the province's plan to better respond to future health emergencies, which was unveiled Tuesday as COVID-19 hospitalizations tick up.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said that while the pandemic isn't over, the province is in a place where it can use the lessons learned over the past two years to shore up the health system.
"The most important important lesson we've learned is that we cannot allow ourselves to be unprepared again," she said at a Toronto hospital as she announced the so-called Plan to Stay Open.
"We need to build a stronger, more resilient health-care system that Ontarians can rely on now as well as into the future."
The government announced $81 million over two years to expand a program in which nursing graduates can receive full tuition reimbursement in exchange for committing to practice in an underserved community for two years, as well as $41.4 million in annual funding for clinical education in nursing programs.
Many other measures in the plan were introduced in legislation tabled Tuesday. Some elements had been previously been announced, which critics said was a sign that the government hadn't done enough to fix the strained health system and respond to the pandemic.
The new bill, introduced by Treasury Board President Prabmeet Sarkaria, contains measures allowing the government to make permanent a $3-an-hour wage enhancement for personal support workers that the government has been extending for a few months at a time since 2020. Premier Doug Ford had said earlier this month that the permanent wage increase was coming.
There's also a plan to amend laws regulating health professionals to make it easier for health workers with foreign credentials to register and begin working in province. The new health bill would prohibit regulatory colleges from requiring Canadian work experience as a qualification for registering.
The bill would also require annual reporting on supplies of personal protective equipment. It also outlines penalties for those who re-sell government-supplied PPE, and plans for regular reporting on the province's food supply.
Digitizing parts of the health system also factors into the government's plans. The legislation, if passed, would "improve the sharing of personal health information" to co-ordinate patient care across the health system. Sarkaria said that would make the system more efficient and lead to better outcomes if someone has to transfer between hospitals, for example.
The proposed legislation also would compel the government to develop and make publicly available a provincial emergency management plan that must be updated every five years.
The plan comes as Ford and his Progressive Conservatives gear up for a spring election, timing that was noted by opposition politicians.
"This is a last-ditch attempt to try to convince Ontarians that they that they have a plan, but I don't see a plan," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, adding that many measures would take a long time to take effect.
Other critics said the new bill was too repetitive of earlier announced measures.
"I think it's a cut-and-paste," said Liberal House Leader John Fraser.
Health worker groups have been calling for measures to boost retention and tackle chronic staff shortages, which they say are worsening as the pandemic drags on. There have been repeated calls for the government to repeal Bill 124, which limits annual salary increases for public sector workers at one per cent annually.
Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, said the issue of the wage bill is an obstacle in the way of positive aspects of the government's plan, like the reduced barriers for internationally trained nurses and wage increases for personal support workers.
"It's hanging like a dark cloud that ought not to be there at this point," she said of the bill. "It really is a barrier to recruitment and to retention."
Ford's government has lifted the majority of public health measures against COVID-19, like masks and proof-of-vaccination rules. At the Tuesday announcement, Elliott repeated the government's refrain that Ontario is now in "a place where our province can safely manage COVID-19 for the long term."
But there are signs that virus trends are again creeping upwards.
Ontario reported 790 people in hospital with COVID-19 and 165 in intensive care on Tuesday, up from 655 in hospital and 158 in intensive care the previous day.
There were 1,610 new cases of COVID-19 recorded today, but the province's top doctor has said the actual number is likely 10 times higher than the daily case count.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2022.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press