The Ontario New Democrats are making health-focused pitches to northern voters, promising quicker reimbursement for medical travel expenses and more local health centres in their communities.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath referred to the region’s “highway health care problem” on Monday, blaming previous Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments for neglecting local health infrastructure needs.
“You have not gotten your fair share on so many fronts,” she said during a campaign stop in Sudbury, Ont. “We’re here to say you can get your fair share with a government that pays attention to your needs.”
If elected in June, the NDP said it would guarantee that residents won’t have to wait more than 14 days to be paid back after health-related travel.
Ms. Horwath pledged to further “clean up” the Northern Health Travel Grant process, including raising the amount of money people can claim, given how the cost of living is rising and is often more expensive in northern communities.
“Anything we can do to make life more affordable for northerners, we will be doing that,” she said.
Currently, residents travelling outside their communities for health services are eligible to apply for reimbursement at a rate of 41 cents per kilometre when travelling to a medical appointment and can claim $100 per night for a two-night hotel stay.
France Gélinas, the party’s candidate for Nickel Belt and former health critic in the legislature, said the travel grant program is a source of weekly complaints to her office.
She said civil service cuts have led to wait times of up to six months for reimbursements, forcing some people to consider giving up on their treatments, and claim amounts haven’t kept up with inflation.
“The whole system fails people every single day, and when you fail somebody who’s in need of medical treatment, you put their health and their health recovery at risk,” she said. Gélinas said appropriate changes to the program could probably be made within a year of the NDP forming government.
The party also made several promises to strengthen local health care services and make health-related travel less necessary for people.
The NDP’s plan includes a promise to establish community health centres in the Kenora, Cochrane and Sault Ste. Marie areas with services for Indigenous and francophone communities.
There is also a pledge to “immediately” hire 300 doctors in the region, including 100 specialists and 40 mental health practitioners.
Another section on mental health and addictions promised to expedite approvals for more supervised consumption sites in the north and fund mental health crisis centres in Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout and Sudbury.
The party is also promising to expand French-language health services, bring back and expand a Sudbury midwifery program and work on incentives to bring health workers north.
Ms. Horwath said health care retention will only work if the region is made more livable and affordable. Her party is also promising to put more money toward education in the north, make high-speed internet available by 2025 and build 6,000 affordable housing units and 3,600 supportive housing units in the region.
The party also promised to bring back the Northlander rail service and connect it with the Polar Express in Cochrane. The rail line between Toronto and northern Ontario was cancelled by a previous Liberal government in 2012 that cited high costs of subsidizing it.
Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford this week also repeated a 2018 campaign promise to bring back the Northlander, touting its importance to boosting the economy and helping people travel to medical appointments.
Mr. Ford spent the weekend in the north with stops in Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, and he is set to be in North Bay on Tuesday with the other party leaders for a debate on northern issues.
On Monday, flanked by four of her party’s northern candidates – three of them incumbents – Ms. Horwath said she’s not worried about Mr. Ford campaigning on territory where her party holds incumbent bench strength.
“I think Doug Ford’s trying to discover the north for the first time,” she said.