Members of the North Bay and District Health Coalition are inviting West Nipissing residents, 16 and older, to take part in a citizen-run referendum on healthcare privatization. The vote is taking place from 9am to 5pm at 206 King Street, unit B on Saturday, May 27th. Some residents may have already received some information, as Anita Corriveau, Health Coalition member, has been hard at work delivering pamphlets and even lawn signs all over the community. “Doug Ford is going to be jealous, because there’s going to be more people voting for this, than who voted for him,” jokes Corriveau. An online voting option is also available until May 27th at publichospitalvote.ca.
Doug Ford is often mentioned, sometimes with disdain, and often with incredulity, whenever Corriveau or fellow Health Coalition member Henri Giroux talk about how this referendum came to be. “In February  we alerted the people that the government was thinking about doing this,” explains Giroux. This was at the time the former leader of the NDP, Andrea Horwath, brought to light some leaked legislative documents which she had suggested would give the Conservative government “unprecedented power to farm out services to private sector entities.” The Ontario Health Coalition has been sounding the alarm ever since, but it wasn’t until the Ford government introduced Bill 60 in February of this year, that the Coalition decided it was time to show the government what citizens have to say about it. “We’ve been working on this for over a year to let people know what’s going on, and we had a media blitz all over Ontario. Now, he [Doug Ford] said ‘for sure we’re bringing Bill 60,’ so that’s when we decided we were going to have a referendum vote,” explains Giroux.
The Ontario Health Coalition is an affiliate of the Canadian Health Coalition. It is a not-for-profit group which, as stated on their website, seeks to “protect and improve our public health care system.” The Ontario Health Coalition also has several local chapters that spring up with the help of local volunteers when a pressing issue crops up. Bill 60 is just such an issue, according to Giroux.
Called the “Your Health Act”, Bill 60 provides the framework for private health centres to administer essential health services. Though the Ford government has said many times that “you won’t have to use your credit card” to pay for essential health care in Ontario, many people don’t believe the statement, and others have already had to pay out of pocket for medically necessary procedures. Recently, this assurance was repeated by Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli during a media event to talk about the Health Coalition referendum. “He told the media in North Bay that ‘you will never use a credit card,’ and that we’re fearmongering, we don’t know what we’re talking about,” says Henri Giroux, who is no stranger to navigating the healthcare system in Ontario. “I fought cancer for four years, and [there is] stuff that I’ve seen in healthcare that I’ve never seen before,” he says, adding that he often wonders how some people can afford the costs.
Edna Danis is a Sturgeon Falls resident who has firsthand experience with private clinics and having to pay for cataract surgery, which is deemed medically necessary under the Canada Health Act. Danis explains that as early as 2009, she had issues with a cataract surgery in North Bay that had gone wrong in one of her eyes. Not wanting to have a bad experience again, she went to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. “I saw a doctor there, and then he sent me to the Kensington Eye Institute, another clinic. It was fancy, very nice. He did the surgery and fixed my eye,” she describes. Danis says the doctor had promised that the surgery would cost $500, which she says was a small price to pay to be able to see from her eye again. However, when she came to pay, she was told it would be $2,000. She refused to pay the additional fees and the doctor was called and confirmed the $500 cost, but she says that the clinic then withheld medication. “There was this bag they had prepared with all sorts of things, I imagine medications and all that,” she explains and adds that when the doctor confirmed the price, the receptionist took that bag away. “I had to get a prescription, then go to another doctor. I was stuck in traffic and my eye was burning. I probably needed to take those [medications] immediately,” she says.
When asked about why she went to a private clinic in the first place, despite the cataract surgery being covered by OHIP, she says that the doctor explained that “if I had waited at Sunnybrook, there was a long waitlist, and don’t forget, my eye was in distress. So, he told me ‘I work at Kensington, and I could see you there much faster.’” Danis says that this kind of upselling happens here as well; when she was in North Bay recently for her cataracts, she says they did the same thing. “They say it won’t cost you anything, but if you want them to measure with a more precise laser…, here you are with a sick eye, and they’re telling you ‘It’ll be better, but it will cost $300.’”
The upselling of procedures is apparently common practice lately. In a 2017 report, the Ontario Health Coalition published data it had collected through surveys with private clinics and patients. “Cataract surgery clinics routinely charge seniors on fixed incomes $100 per eye or more for extra eye measurement tests, and direct charges to patients for eye surgery often amount to $1,500 – $2,000 or more,” reads part of the report, which surveyed 136 private clinics across nine provinces. In many cases, the survey also found that patients felt they had “no choice” or were made to feel like “doom was apparent if not done” when it came to the additional costs and procedures. “They add these little ‘gifts’ so that you agree to those other options. Obviously, you want to be able to see. It’s the same thing for a hip; you want to be able to walk. With a knee, you want to be able to bend it,” explains Anita Corriveau. The fear for Corriveau and Danis is that Bill 60 would make this kind of practice much more commonplace.
Most of the people that are asked about Bill 60 are not pleased about it, regardless of their political leanings. “This is an ideological thing; I know lots of Conservatives who can’t believe we’re going here,” explains Timiskaming – Cochrane MPP, John Vanthof, of the opposition NDP. “One of the things that attracts people to Canada, and attracts jobs to our area, is our public healthcare system. It makes a difference if you’re going to build something in West Nipissing to employ people, and you know one of the things you don’t have to worry about is that you need a really good benefits package, and you need really good insurance, otherwise your employees and their kids aren’t going to get healthcare services. You haven’t had to worry about that in Canada for a really long time. The way we’re going, you’re going to have to worry about it in the future.”
Vanthof is not the only one who is seeing outcry on Bill 60 from otherwise staunch Conservative voters. While doing door-knocking campaigns, Henri Giroux and Anita Corriveau say they haven’t spoken to anyone who agrees with healthcare privatization. “Not a single person has said to me ‘well, Anita, maybe it’s a good idea.’ None at all,” says Corriveau. Giroux also suspects that Conservative MPPs may not be entirely enthusiastic about the Bill. “I’ll tell you one thing, when they passed Bill 60 at Queen’s Park, if you watched it, they were clapping, but they weren’t clapping very loud on the Conservative side. So, I think there was a lot of debate,” he says, also suggesting that once the province-wide referendum is over, some MPPs might reconsider their position upon seeing the votes coming from their own ridings.
The Ontario Health Coalition’s referendum has already collected some votes. Ongoing online polling has already yielded over 80,000 votes according to Henri Giroux, and he is also expecting unions across the province to hold votes within their workplaces on May 26th. In preparation for the vote on the 27th, he says that “across the province we have about 1000 [voting stations]. For us [in the North Bay and district], we have one in each small town, and we have 10 in North Bay.” Giroux says that he’s been getting a lot of support from people in small northern communities wanting to hold a local vote, and volunteering to take care of the polling station.
He says that the sentiment in the North is particularly strong against privatization due to fear of losing what little healthcare services we have. “We have a lot of small hospitals, like in Sturgeon, and in Mattawa, in Kirkland Lake, and we feel that those doctors will leave and start their own practices, and those small hospitals will wind up losing in the long run. Especially for the North, because we have a lot of small hospitals, and we count on their emergency rooms to be alive,” he explains. John Vanthof agrees with the assessment that privatization would hurt Northern Ontario significantly, but not just due to hospital closures. “We’re going to be even worse [off], I think. Where the specialty clinics and where the quicker service and all that is going to happen, is likely not going to be in Northern Ontario, because you need volume [to be profitable],” he explains.
An exodus of healthcare workers from the public sector towards for-profit healthcare is first on the minds of many when they talk about privatization. “When I talked to the CEO of the West Nipissing hospital, […] one of their biggest costs is agency nurses. […] The nurses who work for them, they are unable to raise their wages competitively to pay them what they’re worth, so they go to an agency, and then the agency tacks on their costs on-top, and the hospital is forced to hire those nurses back. The government could take steps to stop that practice, but they are just turning a blind eye,” describes Vanthof, putting much of the blame on Bill 124 which severely limited public sector nurses’ wage increases. With that in mind, he says he doesn’t blame healthcare workers for seeking better wages in the private sector, placing the blame solely on the government for creating these conditions which promote the move to private healthcare for workers. “The current government has an ideological bent that big for-profit is always better than not-for-profit, and we think they will be proven wrong. Unfortunately, it is going to be the experiences of Ontarians that are going to be that proof,” Vanthof deplores.