Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford signed an agreement on Friday that details how the province must spend $3.1 billion in federal funding earmarked for health care.
As part of the deal, the provincial government must create new primary health-care teams, which include family doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, pharmacists and social workers. The province will also open another 700 spots in medical education programs — including 70 in Northern Ontario — and improve its tracking and reporting of health data by upgrading digital infrastructure across the system.
"Universal public health care is a core part of what it means to be Canadian. It is the idea that no matter where you live or what you earn, you will always be able to get the care you need," Trudeau's office said in a news release.
"Unfortunately, our health-care system has not been living up to expectations," it continued.
The deal stems from a national health funding summit in February 2023, when Trudeau's government offered to boost the Canada Health Transfer with $46 billion in additional spending, including $25 billion allocated for tailored agreements with the provinces and territories.
Although Ontario and the federal government reached an agreement in principle for $8.6 billion over 10 years following the summit, the two sides have been working out the details ever since. The $3.1 billion outlined in the deal announced Friday covers the first three years of the agreement.
Ontario is the fifth province to reach an accord with Ottawa, joining B.C., Alberta, Nova Scotia and P.E.I.
Lengthy wait times, lack of family doctors
The finalized deal comes as Ontario's health system faces a severe staffing crunch, while a record-high number of patients lack a family doctor and the ripple effects create lengthy wait times at hospital emergency rooms.
Last week, Ontario's Health Minister Sylvia Jones announced $110 million in funding to add 400 health professionals in 78 new or expanded primary care teams across the province. The new federal funding for primary health teams comes on top of that announcement, and Ford said he hopes it will help reduce wait times in emergency rooms, which have seen an increase in patients that do not require urgent care.
"I'm going to be zoned-in on these emergency departments," Ford said.
Dr. Nadia Alam, a family doctor, anaesthetist and former president of the Ontario Medical Assocation (OMA), said the new money could help "stabilize" the health-care system if it's spent with the future in mind.
"Our health-care system is in dire straits and right now it feels like we are moving the furniture around while the house is on fire," she told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Friday.
"When the province spends money wisely, and carefully, injecting it not just to put out fires but to actually think long term, we have the potential to do so much to save a very broken health-care system," Alam added.
Ontario's auditor general found in a report late last year that between July 2022 and June 2023 there were 203 temporary emergency department closures across the province. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)
The bilateral accord also aims to expand access to mental health care in the province.
"We know people are waiting too long to access the mental health care they need," Trudeau said at a morning news conference in King City, adding that wait times are especially unacceptable in rural areas and for young people. Ontario has agreed to opening five new Youth Wellness Hubs in addition to the 22 that have opened since 2022.
OMA welcomes funding, says more is needed
The deal similarly includes federal funding to support the province's plan to give health-care professionals who are licensed elsewhere in Canada the automatic right to practice in Ontario, as well as making it easier for internationally trained health workers to work in the province.
"This includes removing barriers to foreign credential recognition, simplifying licensing processes, and increasing program access for highly educated and skilled health professionals," the news release said.
The OMA, which represents the province's doctors, said in a statement that it welcomes the funding boost but cautioned more money will be needed to "address the significant structural challenges" in the health system.
"While we tackle the most urgent issues, we also need to ensure we have a long-term, stable funding formula to fix the underlying issues in the system and build for the future, knowing we have an aging and more medically complex patient population," Dr. Andrew Park, OMA president, said in the statement.
Ontario is the fifth province to reach an accord with Ottawa, joining B.C., Alberta, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)
Meanwhile, the opposition New Democrats questioned why it took a full year for the agreement to be finalized and called for transparency in how the province spends the money.
"Ontarians have been waiting over a year for the Ford government to sign this agreement for federal funding to our health-care system. Many people in Ontario have spent that time waiting in overcrowded ERs, waiting for overloaded ambulances, and waiting to see their family doctors," said MPP France Gélinas, the NDP's health critic, in a statement.
"It's about time that this deal was signed," she added.
The Ontario Nurses' Association also questioned the statistics presented at the news conference by the premier and health minister, including numbers of new nurses in the province.
"If we have so many new nurses, why is it that Ontario is seeing hundreds of emergency departments continuing to have to close due to nurse staffing shortages?" president Erin Ariss wrote in a statement.
Ontario's auditor general found in a report late last year that between July 2022 and June 2023 there were 203 temporary emergency department closures across the province.
Amid that strain on the system, one in five patients who visited ERs were only there because they did not have a family doctor, and they did not need urgent care, the report found.