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Patients wait in hospital hallways for a bed. An estimated 15 per cent of beds at Ottawa hospital are being taken up by people who should be moved to long-term care facilities. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The spectre of an aging population in Ontario has fuelled election promises from all three major parties in Ontario, but one health-care observer sees little of substance in the party platforms.

Even before the writ was issued Wednesday, the provincial Liberals, Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats all released party platforms that included health-care promises which, in large part, focused on Ontario's aging population.

Douglas Angus, a health policy professor at the University of Ottawa, said none of these promises come close to addressing what he sees as a serious issue.

He calls the $60 million the Liberals have promised to bring back medical house calls for seniors and people with disabilities "a drop in the bucket" and says the NDP's promise to scrap ambulance fees is similarly small.

Here's a look at some of the promises so far that have focused on seniors and health care:

Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives have promised:

  • 5,000 new long-term care beds and renovations of 35,000 long-term care beds.
  • A plan to double the caregiver tax credit.

Dalton McGuinty's Liberal Party has promised:

  • To continue its Aging at Home strategy.
  • To invest $60 million to bring back medical house calls for seniors and people with disabilities.

Andrea Horwath's New Democratic Party has promised:

  • 2,650 new long-term care beds.
  • To scrap $45 ambulance fees, which she says create a financial burden for seniors.

"When you take it as part of the larger health-care spending puzzle, it really is miniscule," said Angus.

Angus said PC plans to add 5,000 long-term care beds would make a significant dent if it was for just eastern Ontario — where today 3,200 people are currently waiting either in a hospital or at home, for long-term care. But he said province-wide, it amounts to a piece-meal approach.

"Nobody is going to say any of these are unwelcome," said Angus. "But they are Band-Aids when what we need is a diagnostic look at what's going on."

Senior population to double by 2036

What's going on, according to provincial estimates, is that Ontario's population is getting older. The number of people aged 65 and over is projected to more than double, from 1.8 million in 2010 to 4.1 million in 2036, when they will account for close to a quarter of the total population.

In particular, the population of people 80 and over is expected to rise from 674,660 in 2010 to an estimated 1.3 million, a 260 per cent increase.

But the rise of seniors is not steady, instead accelerating from 2011 to 2031 as baby boomers age and then slowing after 2031.

Not everyone thinks the rise in the number of seniors will lead to soaring health-care costs. Two studies out of British Columbia released in late August found other factors were driving up health-care costs in Canada — primarily the growing use of specialists, increasing diagnostic tests for the elderly and higher consumption of ever more costly drugs.

One study examining total health-care spending in British Columbia from 1996 to 2006 and another analyzing visits and fees paid to B.C. physicians concluded that neither the sharpest rise in cost nor the larger share of the increase was driven by the aging population, but by factors that can be controlled by health-care providers or policy-makers.

But National Bank Financial issued a report earlier this spring that predicted the aging population alone would drive up health-care costs in the province five per cent over the next five years and 22 per cent by 2030.

When other factors are considered, the report says health-care costs in the province will rise 11.3 per cent in five years and over 50 per cent by 2030.

Time to react

Angus said the relatively slow growth in the short-term gives the next provincial government time to react and develop a thorough policy.

joint report from the Ontario Hospital Association and the Ontario Association of Community Care Access Centres called for greater spending in community care to keep people out of hospitals and for Local Health Integration Networks to better integrate with municipal public health units and family practitioners.

Angus said in addition to integrating health care with social services, Ontario needs policies to improve access to pharmaceuticals, expand support so people can provide for elderly family members and look for ways to provide greater health coverage without adding to an already tight budget.

The need to tighten the budget — the province will run a projected deficit of $16.3 billion in 2011-12 — may be playing a role in keeping any of the parties from making lavish promises.

And while the election campaign is young, he is discouraged by what he’s seen so far.

"They are just tossing things out, trying to appease somebody out there," said Angus.

"And I think voters are becoming more and more suspicious that our politicians don’t have a clue."