TORONTO — After years of restricting health-care funding growth, the Ontario budget released Thursday promises new money to reduce wait times and increase capacity at overcrowded hospitals, as well as free prescription medication for children and youth.
The budget promises to increase health-care spending by a total of $11.5 billion over the next three years. The government had previously intended to keep annual health-spending increases low during this time, and the new so-called "booster shot" of funding is $7 billion higher than the previous plan.
Of that $7 billion, $1 billion is coming this budget year. Ontario will spend $53.8 billion on health care this year, up from $52.2 billion last year. Spending will rise to $58.1 billion in 2019-20, according to the budget plan.
This comes after the province's Financial Accountability Office warned that if the government continued with its plan to restrain health-care funding — without the booster shot — the level of austerity would have been the strictest in 20 years, and possibly unsustainable in the face of a growing and aging population.
The budget indicates $1.3 billion of the new funding will be dedicated to reducing wait times over the next three years.
OHIP+ CHILDREN AND YOUTH PHARMACARE
The biggest surprise policy announcement of the budget is free prescription medication for Ontarians under age 25. The pharmacare program will cover medication for all of the province's four million children, regardless of their family's income. It will be most beneficial for families that don't have work drug plans and aren't on social assistance.
It will cover the 4,400-plus drugs included in the Ontario Drug Benefit Program, which is used by seniors and those on social assistance. However, children's caregivers will not have to pay the deductibles and co-pay costs that those groups pay.
The program will cover common childhood medications including antibiotics, asthma inhalers, diabetes medication, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder medication. It also includes oral cancer medication, while hospital-based medication is already free in Ontario.
The pharmacare program is set to begin on Jan. 1, 2018. The cost of its first full year is estimated at $465 million.
Earlier this month, the Ontario NDP announced plans for their own pharmacare program that, if the party is elected, would cover 125 basic medications for Ontarians of all ages.
The budget includes an increase of $518 million in hospital funding, a three-per-cent boost. It comes after hospitals warned of overcrowding and patients being placed in hallways, boardrooms and even cafeterias when there weren't enough beds. The Ontario Hospital Association had asked for a larger funding increase of 4.9 per cent.
The budget promises an extra $9 billion for hospital construction projects over 10 years, and announced newly approved hospital construction projects in Niagara, Windsor, Hamilton, Mississauga and the Weeneebayko hospital replacement project in northern Ontario, as well as a new $2.5 million for the planning of an expansion to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto.
The budget includes $100 million over three years for the province's new dementia strategy, which will include helping patients and their caregivers find support, and improving training and education for health-care workers in dementia care.
The budget includes an extra $58 million for long-term care homes, a two-per-cent increase. Residents' food allowance will increase by six per cent, which comes after negative news reports that the province spends more per capita on food for inmates than seniors in long-term care.
The budget also increases funding to Behavioural Supports Ontario by $10 million, which will help long-term care homes handle patients with complex behavioural issues related to dementia.
ABORTION PILL FUNDING
The budget promises public funding for the new abortion pill Mifegymiso. Women with a prescription will be able to get it for free at a pharmacy.
Jessica Smith Cross, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version carried incorrect details about abortion pill funding based on information provided by a government official.