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Paramedics prepare to transfer COVID-19 patient John Wylie, 76, from Brampton Civic Hospital, to Halton Health Care, on May 25.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Ontario’s Health Minister Sylvia Jones wouldn’t rule out privatization of health care services as an option to tackle the hospital staffing shortage that has shuttered emergency rooms in recent weeks.

Asked by reporters on Wednesday about plans to address the staffing crunch and whether privatization is possible, Ms. Jones said “all options are on the table.”

“We’ve always had a public-health care system in the province of Ontario and we will continue to. Are we looking at options? Absolutely. There are jurisdictions in other parts of Canada and the world that have other opportunities that we’re going to look at and all of those suggestions are being considered,” she said.

Over the weekend, six hospitals had to close their emergency departments owing to staffing shortages, according to Ontario Health. Ms. Jones said on Monday that suggestions that the health care system is in crisis are “completely inappropriate.” The Ontario Nurses Association said members have informed them of 35 hospitals being impacted by service disruptions, including emergency room closures, since the August long weekend.

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Ms. Jones didn’t provide any specifics on what is being explored but the government pledged “bold action” on health care in Tuesday’s Throne Speech. Last week, Ms. Jones issued directives to the two colleges regulating physicians and nurses in the province, giving them two weeks to present a plan on accelerating the accreditation of internationally-trained nurses.

A number of the province’s top unions and health care organizations have decried the minister’s comments, arguing that the government was putting the integrity of the health system at risk by entertaining the idea of privatization.

“This road is in the complete opposite direction from the one the government should be heading down,” said Michael Hurley, President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU), which was part of a group of major unions that released a joint, five-point plan last week to help the government to solve the hospital crisis.

“They’re going to walk us off a cliff here.”

Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO) CEO Dr. Doris Grinspun called the suggestion of privatization a “dangerous proposition” and said the refusal of the Ford government to attempt any of the solutions proposed by the health care community makes it seem like they are purposefully ignoring them in order to create justification for privatization.

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“The minister is throwing this idea in while the system is collapsing because there are not sufficient resources. It begs the question if are they creating crisis to offer privatization as a solution, and if that’s the case, it’s unconscionable,” Dr. Grinspun said.

Sharleen Stewart, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare president, said Premier Doug Ford has a “responsibility” to detail what privatization options his government may be considering.

“Frankly, it’s unfathomable that Premier Ford would kick open the doors to further privatize our health care system after the people of Ontario were exposed to the grave failures of the for-profit nursing home industry,” Ms. Stewart said.

The government was grilled by opposition members on its handling of the hospital situation during the first Question Period of the new parliament on Wednesday, with Ontario NDP Health Critic France Gélinas later saying in a statement that the idea of privatization would be “a disaster for peoples’ health.”

“It would mean losing nurses, doctors and PSWs leaving the public system to work privately, making the health care crisis even worse. It could mean that people are forced to pay out of pocket, or wait longer for care,” Ms. Gélinas said.

In response to pressure during question period, Mr. Ford said the government is “going to pour money” into health care, on top of previous investments to hire more than 10,500 health care workers since the start of the pandemic. But the province’s budget, retabled on Tuesday, didn’t provide any additional funding for health care beyond the long-term plan to spend $40-billion on building and expanding hospitals over the next 10 years.

“I agree we need more nurses,” he said. “If there were 5,000 nurses that could fly in from the sky, we’d be hiring them tomorrow.”

“Let’s be clear, there is not a crumbling system in the province of Ontario. We have a very strong health care system,” Ms. Jones told reporters. “I would say what we have in Ontario is what we’re seeing internationally and that is a shortage of health care workers.”

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