Ontario’s government has earmarked less than half the estimated $1.3 billion needed over the next three years to clear the backlog of non-emergency surgeries and diagnostic procedures postponed in the pandemic, an independent watchdog says.
The warning came Monday from the Financial Accountability Office, which calculated wait lists will reach 419,200 surgeries and almost 2.5 million diagnostic tests and procedures by the end of September in the wake of cancellations during the first three waves of COVID-19.
“It will cost the province $1.3 billion to clear the projected surgery and diagnostic procedures backlog,” the office said in a statement. “In the 2021 budget, the province allocated $610 million to address the backlog, which represents a funding shortfall of approximately $700 million.”
Health Minister Christine Elliott pledged surgeries and diagnostics will be performed on “evenings and on weekends,” with the addition of $500 million in funding to catch up as pandemic situation improves and more hospital intensive care beds open up.
“We also have a regional wait list now, which we haven’t had before, which means that … we’ll use every possible time and space in operating rooms to advance surgeries with cardiac cancer or surgeries or cataract surgeries,” she added.
“Those are the ones that are most in demand right now, but I think it’s also important to note that 88 per cent of our hospitals did meet their surgical targets last year, and we have performed over 420,000 surgeries, since the pandemic began.”
Doctors have repeatedly warned that people waiting for care in the pandemic can see their conditions worsen, particularly with cancer and cardiac disease, if procedures aren’t performed in a timely manner.
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“This is pretty frightening. This is a matter of life and death. These are people who are waiting in pain, anxiety and worry,” said New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath, pressing Elliott to devote more resources to the problem.
The Financial Accountability Office (FAO) said its estimate of 3.5 years to clear the surgery backlog and three years for diagnostics is based on hospitals working at 11 per cent above pre-pandemic volumes for surgeries and at 18 per cent higher levels for diagnostics.
It did not, however, account for staffing levels and required physical capacity such as operating rooms, and noted that “those factors will all impact the estimated costs and time to clear the backlog.”
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said the prospect of some people waiting up to three years for needed operations and tests “just isn’t acceptable,” while Liberal House Leader John Fraser suggested the “most urgent” cases be handled 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Elliott acknowledged the backlogs are “unfortunate” but said procedures had to be delayed to keep ICU beds clear for COVID-19 patients, who are down to 828 from an all-time high around 900 recently, more than double the peak reached in the winter at the peak of the second wave.
“I know people have been waiting a long time to have their surgeries done. This is something we are looking at on a daily basis because we are also anxious to make sure that we can get back to reducing that backlog and getting people back to their normal lives and work.”
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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