Health Minister Helena Jaczek on Ontario's hospital backlog, OHIP+, and the need for community care
CBC Toronto interviewed the minister for our health care series Prescription for Change
Last month, with barely any time to spare before campaign season, Helena Jaczek became Ontario's new health minister.
The former Women's College Hospital physician and York Medical Officer of Health — who was, most recently, the minister of Community and Social Services — entered the role after Eric Hoskins' resigned from the post to chair a new federal pharmacare committee.
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It's a change that came just weeks before the recent barrage of health care promises from Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals' main rivals going into the June election.
With that in mind, CBC Toronto reporter Lauren Pelley sat down with Jaczek as part of the health care series Prescription for Change to talk about the challenges facing Ontario's health care system, the government's top priorities, and what the other major parties are promising.
LP: What do you see being the biggest challenges facing the health care system in Ontario right now?
HJ: Well, at this point, we're certainly looking at some of the challenges in the hospital sector, in terms of the number of patients coming in with really quite complex conditions.
We're finding it not only a load on our emergency departments, but as patients move into the hospital, they recover, then it's very hard to move them out of the hospital into an appropriate level of care.
We do everything we can to make sure people get back to home with the kinds of supports they need, but sometimes they do need long-term care. So you have a lot of moving parts.
LP: Many health experts say if you want to fix the struggles hospitals are having, you have to support care in the community. Do you agree?
HJ: This has been a real focus of our government. We know people feel more comfortable at home; that's where they want to be.
We have been providing that kind of support but we also have to be realistic enough to know that at some point people may need a facility — so we also need to increase our capacity on the long-term care side as well.
LP: Some people feel it's not just about more money, it's that the money is misspent. How do you respond to that?
HJ: We look at the dollars and cents of every single program. I'm confident that the money is being put where we need it to be put, to look after the people here in Ontario.
Is there more we need to do? Do we need to concentrate more on some sectors than others? Absolutely.
LP: What do you think the top priorities should be?
HJ: We need to continue to look at hospital capacity. We need to ensure the passage through the hospital is as seamless and appropriate as possible. That, then, puts the pressure on the need for community care and long-term care.
Those are the three pieces we're facing right now.
LP: What other types of support do you think the province should be building?
HJ: We've come to realize one of the areas of support that is really necessary is the personal support worker role. These are individuals who care, especially for the frail and elderly in the home.
Often there's an emotional component to this kind of support as well. They're involved in intimate bathing and so on.
We need to ensure there's continuity of care. This is a little bit different from classical health care. My background is in public health, so I look at health care very, very broadly. The type of social supports for people as they age are incredibly important.
LP: One piece your party announced this week was expanding OHIP+, making prescription drugs free for people 65 and up. Why was that a priority?
HJ: When you write a prescription as a physician, you always have in the back of your mind: Is the individual actually going to be able to afford a prescription?
What we've done with OHIP+, extending [from just people under 25] into the senior age group, is there will no longer be a deductible or co-payment on medications. It's a move toward universal Pharmacare.
LP: This is what the NDP are talking about now too: Covering prescription drugs and dental care.
HJ: Well, their proposal for Pharmacare is a little different. They're concentrating on only 125 drugs. What we're making available is 4,400.
We feel our approach is looking at the most vulnerable populations first — children and seniors — and covers many more medications.
LP: Right now you're also up against PC leader Doug Ford, who says he wants to get patients seen quicker.
HJ: I've only seen broad statements from the leader of the official opposition. I don't really know what the details of his plan are at all. I'm not quite sure how he's intending to pay for his plan. I guess we'll wait for details.
What I can tell you is we have thought long and hard about where we should put our resources.
LP: What is your message to clinicians and patients in Ontario right now?
HJ: I have great admiration for my colleagues in health care, whether it's physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, midwives, registered practical nurses, the orderlies in the hospital — everyone who cares for patients is working hard.
But it's not only those health professionals that are out there doing a great job in their professions. We need to look more broadly at all the social determinants of health. We know that if people are poor, they have worse health, and we need to address that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.