Councillors in Kingston, Ont., have voted to add $1 million to the city's 2024 budget in a bid to attract more health-care providers, but the extra funds come with a warning from the city's mayor that doctor recruitment in Ontario seems headed toward "madness."
The investment received unanimous support from council following two days of marathon budget meetings earlier this week. It's the city's first budget prepared under the province's new "strong mayor" powers.
District 6 Coun. Jimmy Hassan introduced the call for more funding, saying doctors are retiring and moving away, leaving residents without care.
It's time for council to "step up and show Kingstonians that we are thinking about them, we stand with them … and we are committed to taking care of them," Hassan said.
That kick-started a conversation about the fact that health care falls under the province's purview.
Pittsburgh District Coun. Ryan Boehme said he's against wading into issues that should be covered by other levels of government, but added in this case it's clear there's a "dire need within our community," and noted municipalities are competing against one another to attract doctors and nurse practitioners.
City offered signing bonuses
In 2021, Kingston set aside $2 million to attract more doctors, offering interested physicians a $100,000 signing bonus.
The city has managed to sign 13 new doctors so far, with another two pending, according to Craig Desjardins, the city's director of strategy, innovation and partnerships who oversees doctor recruitment.
But between retirements and the reality that younger family doctors tend to start out with smaller rosters, "we've been treading water," he told the meeting.
Desjardins estimated roughly 30,000 people in the city are currently without primary care.
An estimated 30,000 Kingstonians are without primary health care, roughly 20 per cent of the city's population. (Brian Morris/CBC)
Councillor among thousands without a doctor
Coun. Gary Oosterhof, who represents the Countryside District, shared his personal experience.
"My family was part of the clinic of six retiring doctors," he told his council colleagues. "There is a crisis in just trying to get a doctor's appointment in this town."
In May, six doctors at Frontenac Medical Associates retired at once, leaving more than 8,000 patients behind, among them three generations of the same family who all lost their primary health-care provider.
Kingston's CAO Lanie Hurdle said staff planned to report back on the program in February, and said they had intentionally left a request for more funding out of the budget process.
"If we start to include health-care services in the municipal budget it will become just natural that we will start to finance health-care programs," she explained. "We wanted to make sure that that was separated."
'More and more for less and less'
Mayor Bryan Paterson shared similar reservations.
While he supported the investment, which will be pulled from the city's working reserve fund, he voiced concerns about the $1 million setting any sort of precedent.
"I will never, ever support putting this into the regular city budget," he said.
Dr. Lili Mileva stands next to a lists of doctors at Frontenac Medical Associates in Kingston. As of the end of May, the number of physicians practising there is down to two. (Dan Taekema/CBC)
Paterson pointed to nearby Hastings County, which recently boosted its own physician incentive from $100,000 to $150,000, and said the situation essentially pits communities against one another is a bidding war.
"Do you know where this is going? We're going to be spending more and more for less and less," he told councillors.
"Madness. There's got to be a much better way to address this issue."