Ontario budget 2017: Don't expect to find money for more ER beds, but surgery wait times should get shorter

Ontario budget 2017: Don't expect to find money for more ER beds, but surgery wait times should get shorter

The Liberal health budget promises $890 million to reduce waitlists for diagnostics and certain surgeries – but there's no specific funding to boost the number of beds in clogged emergency rooms.

Both the provincial auditor general's report and anecdotes – including a woman in Brampton who spent five days in pain in an emergency room hallway – have flagged those wait times as a problem.

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found that the average patient needing acute care in the emergency room waited 37 hours before being admitted. That was on top of the fact that patients waited an average of 23 hours to move to intensive care after arriving at the hospital, a figure roughly three times Ontario's target.

What creates the bottleneck

The lack of long-term care beds and the wait time to see family doctors have contributed to the problem.

The budget did include some funding for those specific issues, but, for long-term care, the $58-million increase – less than 0.1 per cent of total health spending – essentially just covers the rate of inflation.

Lysyk noted in her audit last year that about 243,000 people per year visit the emergency room for something that could have been treated by a family doctor or nurse practitioner. And the Liberals do include an additional $145 million to hire more nurse practitioners, social workers, and nurses in community settings.

But Finance Minister Charles Sousa defended the health spending.

When asked about the lack of specific funding for emergency room beds, Sousa replied that the province has increased spending on long-term care, $1.3 billion for reducing wait times to see specialists, and an additional $518 million in hospital operating costs. That increase to hospital spending amounts to roughly three per cent over last year's budget.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, meanwhile, slammed the lack of dedicated funding for emergent care, given the fact that it's been raised numerous times as an issue.

"While our hospitals are overcrowded and patients wait on hospital stretchers for days, the additional funding for hospitals barely covers inflation," she said Thursday.

Reducing surgery wait times

The budget contained good news, however, for those who have been waiting for cataract surgeries, hip, foot and knee replacements.

The Liberals committed $890 million toward reducing the wait times for those procedures – and for cardiac surgery and major diagnostic tests like MRIs.

The province will also invest $245 million on expanding both the centralized system for specialist referrals, and the digital referral service to five new regions.