December 1, 2023

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How many health-care workers does Ontario need? The province won’t say

Officials with the Ford government and the Ministry of Health are refusing to divulge how many new nurses, personal support workers and physicians Ontario needs to fill the staffing gaps in Ontario’s health-care system, citing potential damage to the economy if the information is released.

In a response to a freedom of information request submitted by Global News, civil servants with the ministry of health’s access and privacy division redacted, or blacked out, key information on how many health-care workers Ontario needs — and how much they would cost the province.

The information was withheld, officials said, under Section 18 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which deals with “economic and other interests” of the province, including trade secrets and information that could be “injurious to the financial interests of the Government of Ontario.”


Freedom of information and privacy staff with the Ministry of Health redacted key portions of a briefing obtained by Global News.


Global News

Global News is appealing the decision to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.

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The withheld numbers were part of the transition folder prepared for minister of health Sylvia Jones to brief her when she took on a new portfolio in 2022. The binder is designed to inform an incoming cabinet minister of the inner workings of the ministry, decision-making frameworks and key issues the politician may be expected to handle.

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The information — which would shed some light on the state of hospitals in Ontario and just how desperately new staff are needed — was withheld specifically because it may hamper future negotiations, privacy staff said.

“Ministry projections regarding future staffing needs and associated funding, if released, could impact the ministries negotiating position when negotiating contracts with health-care workers,” Global News was told.

Staff with the Ford government’s ministry of health ignored requests to voluntarily disclose the information when asked by Global News. In response to specific requests to release the data, Jones’ office sent a generic statement about nursing in the province.

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Duff Conacher, the co-founder of Democracy Watch and a transparency advocate, told Global News the manner of the redactions seemed “improper.”

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“It is difficult to see how any of the 10 reasons (under Section 18) justify withholding general projections of the number of doctors, nurses and PSWs needed to maintain health-care services across Ontario,” he said.

Delays in the appeal system mean that even if the province’s freedom of information watchdog rules against the province, the numbers could remain unknown for “a long time more,” Conacher said.

“To stop this kind of abuse that denies the public timely access to government information that they have a clear right to know, this and many other secrecy loopholes in the law need to be closed, resources for enforcement need to be strengthened, and high fines need to be imposed on government officials who violate the law,” he added.


Click to play video: 'Internal Ford government document admits impact of Bill 124'


Internal Ford government document admits impact of Bill 124


Ontario Liberal health critic Adil Shamji called the redactions “profoundly disappointing, though entirely fitting with this government’s track record of a lack of accountability and transparency.”

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“The public, patients, those of us who are trying to genuinely improve the health-care system need to have a frank understanding of where we are right now in order to be able to make pragmatic recommendations,” Shamji said. “And not sharing this information completely flies in the face of that — I think we all have a right to know that.”

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The information that was released through the freedom of information request contains a snapshot of the challenges Ontario’s health-care sector faces.

It references a “lack of new nurses to replace those retiring and (the fact that) demand for nursing services has increased,” as one issue, going on to reference a “systemic shortage of nurses.”


Click to play video: 'Ornge record highest volume of paediatric patient transfers since 2018'


Ornge record highest volume of paediatric patient transfers since 2018


Another line in the released document says 25 per cent of personal support workers (PSW) in Ontario can leave the workforce in a single year.

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“We must reduce attrition to avoid chronic shortages,” the provincial government briefing warns about PSWs. For nurses, it warns that increased supply and avoiding an increase in attrition “are required to head off chronic shortages.”

The documents say there is “no overall shortage” in the number of physicians in Ontario, though there are rural and skills-based disparities that must be addressed.


An internal government document, obtained by Global News, revealed an admission by the Ministry of Health about the impact of Bill 124.


Global News

France Gélinas, the Ontario NDP’s health critic, said it was “vital” the information was released.

“The Ford government’s decision to withhold this information is just another example of why they can’t be trusted with our vital public services,” she told Global News. “I’m calling on Ford to release this information immediately and ensure Ontarians have a clear picture of the state of our health-care workforce challenges.”

Global News is appealing the redactions and will publish the data in full if its appeal is successful.

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Click to play video: 'Internal Ford government document admits impact of Bill 124'


Internal Ford government document admits impact of Bill 124


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