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Thomas: Message to the OHA — recovery will take action, not just talk

OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas with a Toronto Sun logo.
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The following Op Ed by OPSEU/SEFPO President Warren (Smokey) Thomas was published in the Toronto Sun on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.

Thomas: Message to the OHA — recovery will take action, not just talk

The third wave of COVID-19 has arrived and many folks are scratching their heads wondering how Ontario’s entire health-care system — and economy — can come to a crippling halt with between 400 and 600 COVID-19 patients in the ICU.

It’s unbelievable and it’s certainly unsustainable; With a population of 15 million people, we should have much more hospital capacity. The consequences of inaction are fatal.

Which begs the question: Where has the talking head of the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) been, and has the OHA fulfilled its mandate to serve Ontario’s hospitals to build a better health-care system?

Let’s just say, our current hospital capacity crisis didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a disaster in the making for 30 years. “Crisis” isn’t just a COVID-19 buzzword — it’s a daily reality for thousands of front-line hospital workers and the patients they support.

At OPSEU/SEFPO, we’ve sounded the alarm. And not just this year, but for the past 30 years since the slash-and-burn “Common Sense Revolution” of the 1990s when the pillaging of our health-care system started.

OHA president and CEO Anthony Dale was around back then too, serving as an aide to Premier Mike Harris — the King of Cuts — and his Minister of Health and Long-Term Care Elizabeth Witmer.

Their government’s deep cuts and costly restructuring gutted Ontario’s health-care system and charted the course for austerity — lasting 30 years and leading to the crisis we’re in today.

Harris’s cocktail of cuts were a recipe for disaster. We’ve known it was coming. How can a hospital deal with a pandemic surge when it hasn’t got the resources — or staffing — to handle the seasonal flu?

We’ve been in dire straits for some time, and it doesn’t take a doctor to know why.

Nowadays, Dale is warning that Ontario’s critical care system is about to reach its “saturation point.” That’s the point at which there’s no more capacity — zero. And he’s right. We’re close to system-wide collapse. He’s right about a few other things too.

Ontario’s hospitals can’t function at peak capacity in the long-term. We need more standby capacity, or put plainly, more buffer room.

We need to get shots into people’s arms and to improve vaccine confidence among the general public. We need paid sick days for essential workers and we all need to follow public health measures to help curb the impact of this third — and hopefully final — wave.

And of course, we absolutely need to invest in staffing and job training to address staff shortages in critical care and every other health service, which are all at a crisis level.

We agree completely. We’ve been saying it for 30 years, while we’ve been on the front lines of the fight to protect and improve our public health-care system – on the ground and in the halls of power at Queen’s Park.

But recently, when our union called on the OHA to take action and support the vaccine rollout in hospitals by removing barriers for front line staff — by directing hospitals to give workers time to get vaccinated — all we heard back were crickets.

Actions speak louder than words, which raises the question: What has the OHA actually done?

The OHA has been AWOL — absent without leadership. That needs to change. Yes, there have been enough mistakes to go around and nobody has done a perfect job.

It’s time we take a different approach — one that’s consultative and constructive. It’s time for the OHA to sit down with the unions so we can address the capacity crisis head on, together.

There’s been plenty of talk about rebuilding our health-care system. It’s time to get to work. And supporting front-line essential workers will be the foundation of our province’s recovery.

Then. Now. Always.

Warren (Smokey) Thomas is president of OPSEU/SEFPO