The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that historically, Ontario had not done enough to protect and prepare the province for a crisis. Stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) were depleted or expired, emergency protocols were under-developed and out-of-date and the province’s health care system was chronically underfunded and understaffed. A Plan to Stay Open, which includes the Pandemic and Emergency Preparedness Act, 2022, will, if passed, recruit and retain more doctors, nurses and personal support workers, further expand domestic production of critical supplies like masks and vaccines and will continue building health care infrastructure so hospitals have the capacity to delver high-quality care to treat more patients.
“We can never go back to previous governments’ chronic underfunding of health care and inadequate emergency preparedness that brought our health care system to the brink and caused so much disruption in our daily lives,” said Prabmeet Sarkaria, President of the Treasury Board. “Our hardworking families, dedicated health care workers and job-creating businesses deserve a plan that will keep Ontario open, safe and prepared.”
Expanding Ontario’s Health Workforce
The cornerstone of the province’s Plan to Stay Open are innovative measures to recruit more doctors, nurses and personal support workers to the province’s health system. To build on the 8,600 health care workers added to the system since March 2020 through wage enhancements and financial incentives, the Plan, and legislation, if passed, will:
- Invest $142 million to launch the new “Learn and Stay” grant. The program will start with $81 million over the next two years to expand the Community Commitment Program for Nurses for up to 1,500 nurse graduates each year to receive full tuition reimbursement in exchange for committing to practice for two years in an underserved community. Starting in Spring 2023, applications will open for up to 2,500 eligible students each year who commit to stay in their region working in an underserved community for up to two years after graduating. Students will be eligible to receive full, upfront funding for tuition, books and other direct educational costs.
- Make it easier and quicker for foreign-credentialled health workers to begin practicing in Ontario by reducing barriers to registering with and being recognized by health regulatory colleges. The legislation would prohibit regulatory colleges from requiring Canadian work experience as a qualification for registration, subject to any exemptions provided for in accompanying regulation. Proposed legislative amendments would also require regulatory colleges to certify potential applicants in a timely manner so that internationally trained health care workers can start work as soon as possible.
- Make the temporary wage enhancement for personal support (PSWs) and direct support workers (DSWs) permanent. Since October 1, 2020, over 158,000 PSWs and DSWs providing publicly funded services in hospitals, long-term care, home and community care and social services have been receiving a wage enhancement of $3/hour or $2/hour. The permanent wage enhancement will help to stabilize, attract and retain the workforce needed to provide a high level of care during the COVID-19 pandemic and to continue these important supports in the long-term recovery from the pandemic.
- Train more doctors through the largest expansion of medical school education in over 10 years. Ontario is adding 160 undergraduate seats and 295 postgraduate positions over the next five years, including at the Ryerson School of Medicine in Brampton, the first new medical school to be created in the province since the Northern Ontario School of Medicine was established in 2005.
- To further support the next generation of health care workers, the government is also investing an additional $41.4 million annually to support the clinical education component in Ontario’s nursing education programs. This investment will enable publicly assisted colleges and universities to expand laboratory capacity supports and hands-on learning for students, providing opportunities for learners to demonstrate their knowledge of theories and principles in actual practical settings.
“Now more than ever, we must train the health care work force of tomorrow to ensure we are prepared to meet the needs of the people of Ontario, especially during times of crisis,” said Jill Dunlop, Minister of Colleges and Universities. “Creating more opportunities for health care professionals to complete their training and successfully transition to employment means that all Ontarians will have access to the quality of care they expect and deserve, regardless of location.”
Shoring-up Domestic Production of Critical Supplies
At the onset of the pandemic, all of the province’s personal PPE was purchased from international sources, which caused enormous disruption due to lockdowns and border restrictions such as when the U.S. barred shipments of N95 respirators from entering Canada. By promoting and supporting Ontario manufacturing and innovation, the province is now producing a wide variety of PPE and critical supplies and equipment (CSE), including N95 respirators at a newly-expanded 3M facility in Brockville, with 93 per cent of the forecasted PPE spend for the next 18 months with Ontario or Canadian sources.
In addition to these measures, and as the province continues to invest in PPE and CSE, the Plan and legislation, if passed, will:
- Launch a life sciences strategy that will support early-stage companies, attract new investment and encourage early adoption of Ontario-made innovations in our hospitals and health system.
- Leverage the province’s extensive manufacturing capability wherever possible to maintain a healthy stockpile of quality PPE and CSE, which could help strengthen PPE and CSE supply chains and ensure the preparedness and the safety and security of Ontarians in non-emergency times and in time of crisis.
- Ensure a safe and stable food supply by requiring regular reports on the province’s security of food supply and contingency planning, including surge capacity for food inspection in an emergency. The changes would also allow for the creation of a temporary location(s) for part or all of the Ontario Food Terminal operations during an emergency.
- Prohibit the offer to sell or the sale of government-provided PPE and CSE that has been provided without charge or payment of a fee, preventing hoarding and protecting consumers from bad actors.
Building More Hospital Beds
Since the outset of the pandemic, the government has added nearly 1,000 more intensive-care unit hospital beds with the capacity to now handle 2,915 critical care patients. The Plan to Stay Open will do more by implementing a capital plan expansion with more than 50 major projects that would add 3,000 new beds over 10 years and invest to support the continuation of over 3,100 acute and post-acute beds in hospitals and alternate health care facilities, and hundreds of new adult, paediatric and neonatal critical care beds.
“While the pandemic is not over, we are now in a place where we can use the lessons learned over the past two years and take actions to ensure our health system is even better, stronger and more resilient in the face of any future challenge,” said Christine Elliott, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health. “Our government is making investments to keep Ontario open, support growing demands and address longstanding challenges in patient care to ensure Ontarians continue to have access to safe, high-quality health care now and in the future.”
Additionally, the Pandemic and Emergency Preparedness Act, if passed, will strengthen emergency oversight and coordination by:
- Establishing clear accountability and governance frameworks for emergencies;
- Requiring the development of a provincial emergency management plan that is publicly available, reviewed and revised at least every five years, with an annual public report on progress of the plan; and
- Enhancing identification, assessment and planning requirements for potential emergency threats.