Thunder Bay PC, NDP candidates skeptical of Liberal primary care pledge

The Ontario Liberals have promised that everyone in the province will have access to a primary care provider within four years — a pledge that could resonate with thousands of Thunder Bay residents who don't have a family doctor.

Thunder Bay-Atikokan Liberal candidate stands behind promise to solve family doctor shortage

Many health centres in Thunder Bay have waiting lists of patients without a family doctor or nurse practitioner. The NorWest Community Health Centre offers walk-in clinic hours and an after-hours urgent care clinic to help meet patient needs. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

A bold promise by the Ontario Liberals is likely to resonate with thousands of people in Thunder Bay who don't have a family doctor. 

On Friday, Kathleen Wynne announced a "Primary Care Guarantee," pledging that if elected, a Liberal government would provide all Ontarians with access to a family doctor or nurse practitioner within four years. In a news release, Wynne said that included focusing on northern and rural communities.

For years, many people in northwestern Ontario have struggled to find a primary care provider and have had to turn to walk-in clinics and the Emergency department. In Thunder Bay, several family doctors who carried caseloads of thousands of patients have retired in recent years, adding to the existing challenge of recruiting and retaining health-care professionals in the north.  

But the Liberal incumbent for the Thunder Bay-Atikokan riding, Bill Mauro, says that's changing. 

Thunder Bay-Atikokan Liberal candidate Bill Mauro. (Supplied)

The Thunder Bay Physician Recruitment and Retention Council estimates that about 13,000 people in the city don't have a primary care provider. Mauro told CBC News that while it's a high number, his Liberal government has significantly improved the situation for patients in Thunder Bay.  

"The number that I had ... in [2003] when we came in [to power] was 30 to 35,000 people who were ... 'orphaned patients'," he said. "We are obviously making serious progress."

Mauro credits that progress to establishing new Family Health Teams, opening nurse-practitioner-led clinics, and graduating more local doctors through the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. 

But the NDP candidate for Thunder Bay-Atikokan, Mary Kozorys, said the Liberals haven't done enough to address the primary care shortage and did not believe they would solve the problem in the next four years.

Thunder Bay-Atikokan NDP candidate Mary Kozorys. (Adam Burns/CBC)

"I don't have faith in that guarantee just as I don't have faith in a lot of the other ... [Liberal] platform promises," she said. 

Kozorys said a significant part of the NDP's plan to attract doctors to underserviced communities is to forgive their student debt. The NDP health platform also pledges to open new 24-hour Family Health Clinics.

Kozorys added that more public education on the role of nurse practitioners in primary care is needed.  

Progressive Conservative party candidate Harold Wilson said his family personally felt the impact of the primary care crunch in Thunder Bay after his family doctor retired. After several years without a regular health-care provider, he said, his family is finally getting into a nurse practitioner clinic.   

Harold Wilson is the Progressive Conservative party candidate for the Thunder Bay-Atikokan riding. (Supplied)

Wilson also criticized the Liberals' primary care pledge.  

"I understand the shortage all too well," Wilson said. "It's a little bit glib to just say' great in four years we're going to solve it'."

Wilson said access to primary care is important not only for people who live in the region now, but also for attracting new residents and jobs. 

"People coming here want to know whether they're going to be having their health needs serviced," he said. "If we can't do that in northern Ontario, it is one more impairment in our moving ahead." 

"I don't think that's been addressed properly over the last while, and I think it's time to change direction and to try new ways," he added. 

However, Wilson did not specify what those new ways might be, saying that if elected, he would seek guidance from health-care professionals.

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