The McGuinty government plans in Tuesday's budget to bolster its efforts to fight breast cancer by targeting its scarce resources to screen high-risk women between the ages of 30 and 49.
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan will announce that the province will spend $15-million over three years to expand a breast cancer screening program to younger women with a family history of the disease, said a senior government source. The funding will allow the province to perform an additional 90,000 screening tests, he said. Currently, the program is restricted to women 50 years and older.
The program is one of the few areas that will receive new funding in Mr. Duncan's fifth budget. There will also be funding to create an additional 60,000 spaces for students in the province's colleges and universities over five years.
The selective investments in health care and education are aimed at protecting the government's key priorities as it embarks on the long road to balancing the books. The deficit for this fiscal year ending March 31 is projected to hit $16.7-billion, 11 per cent lower than the previous forecast.
"We take a very different approach than the American right and those here in Canada who take the Tea Party attitude and want to apply it here in Ontario," Mr. Duncan told reporters Monday in a not-so-subtle attack on the Progressive Conservatives. "We are going to balance the budget in a way that allows us to protect the gains made in health care and education."
The funding for cancer screening comes at a time when the government has been criticized for denying a potentially life-saving treatment to a cancer patient because her tumour, at 0.5 centimetres, was deemed too small. Only tumours larger than one cm qualified for the drug.
Jill Anzarut's story, first revealed in The Globe and Mail, elicited passionate debate and prompted the government to join other provinces and provide expanded access to Herceptin.
But Mr. Duncan is holding out little hope that there will be new funding for other areas of health care and education, which together account for 70 per cent of program spending.
The government is spending $64-million next year to begin rolling out the new postsecondary spaces.
"We have to have the best opportunities for our students," Mr. Duncan said. "I think to do anything else would threaten the future of our economy."
A representative of the province's colleges said she is "thrilled" with the move, and supports the government's stated goal of ensuring 70 per cent of all Ontarians attain a postsecondary education as long as it comes with the necessary capital funding to make space for them.
"To have that continuing commitment in a tough year and a tough budget is terrific," said Linda Franklin, president and CEO of Colleges Ontario.
Mark Langer, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, said the investment is a positive sign, but needs to come with measures to improve the province's student-to-faculty ratio, which is the worst in Canada at nearly 27 to one.
"Is this just a matter of pushing as many people into a room as they can?" he said. "What's going to happen to quality?"
The Ontario arm of the Canadian Federation of Students was more hesitant, arguing the measure will only be helpful if steps are taken to relieve the personal debt load afflicting many students.
"There's no question that more and more people need to go to college and university," said Nora Loreto, the organization's spokeswoman. "But the difficulty with the approach the current government has taken is that they're increasing spaces while at the same time increasing tuition fees."
Postsecondary enrolment has risen steadily in recent years, with universities' number of full-time students increasing by about 50 per cent over a decade ago, and college enrolment rising by 25.6 per cent in the last four years alone.