Ontario is significantly expanding the number and range of medical procedures performed in privately run clinics as the province deals with a surgical backlog made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The change will be introduced over three phases. The first will see surgical and diagnostic clinics in Ottawa, Kitchener-Waterloo and Windsor perform an additional 14,000 cataract operations each year, representing about 25 per cent of the province's current wait list for the procedure.
Next, more private clinics will be able to offer MRI and CT imaging, as well as colonoscopies and endoscopies.
"These procedures will be non-urgent, low-risk and minimally invasive and, in addition to shortening wait times, will allow hospitals to focus their efforts and resources on more complex and high-risk surgeries," the province said in a news release.
The government intends that by 2024, the third phase will see hip and knee replacements performed at for-profit clinics.
The impending changes were outlined by Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Sylvia Jones at a news conference Monday.
Ford and Jones said several times the care will be covered by OHIP, and Ford stressed patients will "never use their credit cards" at the clinics. He didn't directly answer a reporter's question about whether or not clinics would be allowed to upsell patients on associated elements of care.
While the changes are needed because of the province's long surgery wait lists, Ford said, they will be kept in place permanently even after the backlog is cleared.
WATCH | Ford says simpler surgeries are taking up too much capacity at hospitals:
There are currently about 900 privately operated surgical and diagnostic clinics open in Ontario, Jones added. The province plans to approve licences for additional clinics in the future, she said.
Legislation set to be introduced in February would "strengthen oversight" of private health facilities, the news release said, and the province will continue to update its standards for how they deliver care.
Various health-care professionals told CBC Toronto last week they are concerned that the plan would drain resources from publicly funded hospitals and benefit the owners of private-sector clinics without improving patient care.
Jones said the changes will not affect staffing levels at hospitals in the province, while Ford lamented "endless debates" about who should deliver health care.
"The way I can describe it, you have a dam, you have a log jam, are you going to just keep pouring the water up against the logs?" Ford said.
"Or are you going to reroute some of the water and take the pressure off the dam? You see what happens when the dam has too much water, it breaks."
Speaking to reporters, presumptive NDP Leader Marit Stiles said MPPs should be called back to the legislature immediately so the details of the plan can be debated. Stiles accused Ford of manufacturing a staffing crisis in hospitals via his government's wage restraint law and "following the privatization playbook to a tee."
"Make no mistake, Doug Ford is misleading you when he says that funding surgeries in private, for-profit clinics won't have an impact on Ontarians," Stiles said at Queen's Park, adding believes the changes mark early steps toward a two-tiered health-care system in the province.
Five major health-care unions released a joint statement today decrying the plan. The unions said it will "further starve our public health-care system of funding and divert frontline staff to enrich shareholders and diminish access to publicly delivered healthcare."
Meanwhile, the CEO of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), the agency that regulates doctors in the province, said in a statement that she met with the Ministry of Health last week and voiced opposition to some elements of the changes.
"We reiterated our position that complex procedures such as hip and knee joint replacement surgeries should remain connected to the hospital system to ensure continuity of care and patient safety," Dr. Nancy Whitmore said.
"CPSO is supportive of expanding access to diagnostic procedures and less complex surgical procedures in community settings. However, we emphasized our ongoing concern about creating further strain on the present health care provider crisis particularly in skilled operating room nurses and anesthesiologists."
WATCH | CBC News Network spoke with two health-care providers on the pros and cons of Ontario's plan: