TORONTO — It will likely take longer than a year to end overcrowding in Ontario's hospitals, despite a promise from Premier Doug Ford to tackle the problem in 12 months, the health minister said Monday.
Days after Ford's declaration, Health Minister Christine Elliott downplayed his remarks, saying he was articulating the government's "wishes" but the problem is more complex than that.
"The premier is really expressing that we're trying to do it as quickly as possible," she said. "While we hope that it will be within the next year, it may take a little bit longer."
Ford made his pledge on Friday during a meeting of Canada's premiers, promising to end the so-called "hallway health-care" problem that has plagued Ontario's hospitals for years and seen people treated in spaces not appropriate for patient care.
“When we got elected, there was people in hallways across our province waiting to see a doctor for five hours," Ford said. "As we stand right now we're down to 1,000 patients in the hallways, but I can assure the people of Ontario, over the next year we won't have anyone in the hallways there."
Elliott said the government has taken initial steps to begin to address the problem but acknowledged Monday that it will take a multi-pronged approach to solve the issue.
The government needs to build more long-term care spaces, improve access to addictions and mental-health treatment, and address hospital patient flows, she said.
"The premier was expressing wishes that we all have, that we all want hallway medicine ended today but the reality is that can't happen yet," she said. "But we have put in place many of the steps that need to be taken in order to get us to that place."
The president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions called Ford's comments "magical thinking" and said the province should be rolling out an updated plan to tackle the problem.
"The premier said last week that there were 1,000 people on stretchers in hallways," Michael Hurley said. "Wouldn't you expect a plan to open a thousand beds? We're way, way short relative to (other provinces) in terms of beds ... That's why they're being treated in hallways without any dignity or privacy or bathrooms."
The director of the Ontario Health Coalition, which advocates for improvements in public health care, said Ford will not be able to fulfil his promise because the latest provincial budget did not have the funding required to build capacity within the system.
Natalie Mehra said current health spending does not keep pace with the rate of inflation or the province's aging population.
"To end hallway medicine we would need to open a significant number of acute care beds, a significant number of chronic care beds," she said. "We'd have to improve access to diagnostic tests and we'd have to improve access to long-term care, for real."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Ford appeared to pull his timeline "out of thin air" even as hospitals continue to struggle with overcrowding.
"He was obviously making stuff up," she said. "I think anyone who's paying attention to what's happening in health care at all had a collective rolling of the eyes."
Horwath noted that last week her party obtained memos that showed Ottawa's Queensway Carleton Hospital has been experiencing an "ongoing severe capacity overload situation."
"People are not getting the care that they need, with a lack of dignity and privacy," she said. "It's horrifying."
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press