The Ford government said emergency health services would not be negatively affected and no paramedics would lose their jobs as Ontario looks at merging the province’s various ambulance services.
Ontario only gave vague details Tuesday of the proposed restructuring but the Ontario Association of Paramedic Chiefs is holding an emergency meeting on the merger, which would follow the amalgamation of other health services in the province.
Premier Doug Ford said at a Tuesday morning news conference that “nothing’s carved in stone” and that “service isn’t going to go down.” He also insisted no frontline workers would lose their jobs: “There’s always going to be the same number of paramedics, that’s a guarantee."
The measure on ambulance services was quietly announced in last week’s provincial budget and involves integrating 59 emergency health services operators and 22 dispatch centres.
When NDP Leader Andrea Horwath pressed Minister of Health Christine Elliott during Question Period on Tuesday afternoon to provide more details about the restructuring, Ms. Elliott instead pointed to the ministry’s budget increase of $1.3-billion.
“So we are increasing services,” Ms. Elliott said, citing upgraded technology at call centres and new models of care. She said that under the new plan “people will receive more timely access because there will be better communication between dispatchers and the ambulance services.”
But Jason Fraser, chair of the CUPE Ambulance Committee of Ontario, said his union was concerned about the lack of consultation with stakeholders.
“Our chief concern is we need to be able to ensure the residents of the province of Ontario that when they call for an ambulance there’s one going to be able to respond there in an appropriate amount of time,” he said.
Greg Kung, a director with the Ontario Paramedic Association, said the Health Minister was now endeavouring to consult with paramedics and municipalities on the plan.
In a statement, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner called amalgamation “a threat to public safety and a reckless way to find savings." He said local knowledge helps emergency responders find locations quickly and that directing through regional centres was likely to increase response times and endanger lives.
“We’ve all heard horror stories of ambulances being sent to the wrong place, while someone dies alone,” he said. “The risk will only go up if we have nonlocal dispatchers trying to interpret frantic emergency calls with landmarks they’ve never heard of.”
The 2019 budget foreshadowed ambulance services restructuring. It follows another budget promise to reduce the number of public health units from 35 to 10 in a measure expected to save $200-million a year.
The Ontario government also expects to save $350-million by replacing six provincial health agencies and 14 local health integration networks with a single super agency.