Provincial official opposition leader Andrea Horwath speaking last Thursday in St. Catharines. GLORIA KATCH PHOTO

Remarks made at St. Catharines public meeting

Special to the VOICE

Tapping into resources and staying connected with communities and municipalities are several of the ways the provincial NDP is “standing up” to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s slashing of essential services, noted Andrea Horwath, leader of the NDP and official opposition, last Thursday during a public meeting in St. Catharines. Accompanied by area New Democratic MPPs Jennie Stevens for St. Catharines, Jeff Burch for Niagara Centre, and Wayne Gates from Niagara Falls, Horwath told the capacity crowd they were there to listen to residents’ needs and concerns.

Horwath noted that health care has deteriorated to an unacceptable level where people are waiting in emergency and in hallways too long for health care services. It’s become a province where women have to worry about “prescription baby formula” and seniors have to cut their pills in half to make it to the end of the month, and dental care, especially for seniors, has become unaffordable, she said. While Horwath admitted the near future wasn’t “bright,” she said the NDP plans to have “everyday people” at the centre of every decision made.

During a question-and-answer session, complaints included not being able to afford prescription medication because certain drugs weren’t covered under Ontario’s drug plan.

“This happens too often. We need a health care system available that helps people lead a full life. Drugs are not just a financial matter, but a quality of life matter,” Horwath said.

Public health care is also being affected because provincial governments are attempting to scale back Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs). Premier Ford favours privatization, she said, adding that if clinics were privatized they would suffer a similar demise, just as retirement homes have under former Premier Mike Harris. In speaking with CEOs in several of these homes, they have described services as “horrible.”

“Our public dollars don’t belong in private pockets. We are trying to defend our health care system, and in fact expand it,” said Horwath.

In future, she indicated the Conservatives’ cost-savings methods include wanting to “claw money out of the health care system under pain management.”

Adding to that, Horwath that the province intended to change the definition of “disability,” so that many people currently on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) would no longer qualify and be placed on Ontario Works. The latter being a welfare/social assistance program, which pays less money, making it unaffordable for recipients to live on. The proposed changes would also result in “tens of thousands” of future disability candidates not qualifying.

Niagara Falls City Councillor Carolynn Ioannoni recalled the St. Catharines Standard story of a man who recently committed suicide by plunging into the Niagara River. However, this occurred after he told medical professionals he was suicidal and attempted to get help. Nonetheless, he was released from hospital, and took his life shortly after. Ioannoni said, “The system is not just broken. It’s killing people.”

As far as mental health is concerned, Horwath replied, “This province has never gotten it right. When there are about 12,000 children on a waiting list for mental health and addictions services, the system isn’t working.”

She praised MPPs Burch and Stevens for making the legislature aware of the mental health issues in Niagara. After noting that the previous Liberal government planned to increase funding to mental health, the Conservatives came under fire last year for slashing the budget by $335 million. When a man in the audience yelled “addictions,” Horwath said the NDP would separate the ministries of mental health and addictions to improve the level of care.

While Premier Ford announced new initiatives to improve dental care for low-income seniors last week, Horwath said after reading “the details” of the bill that the Conservatives have “capped the program,” and are only allowing this service to be available to the first 100,000 seniors. According to Horwath, there are about 354,000 low-income seniors eligible for the disability program, so the remaining seniors won’t be entitled. Another restriction means this service can only be accessed through a public health unit and not a person’s dentist, which may not be in close proximity to a patient. Transportation for seniors then also becomes an impeding factor.

“They make these big announcements, and then you find the details out later. It’s a cut first and plan later, and you can’t do this,” Horwath said.

Unfortunately, Horwath said this method of decision-making is applied to many areas of Conservative planning. Addressing a senior audience member’s dental health issue, she added that once dental care is needed, seniors can’t eat properly and get the proper nutrition needed, which detrimentally affects all areas of their health and wellness.

Horwath said Ford has been implementing policies which will leave many middle and low income people struggling even more to maintain their current quality of life. Horwath told a scrum of reporters after the meeting that the provincial government discovered “$5 billion of extra spending under the OPG [Ontario Power Generation] and a few different accounting tricks, and it gave them an excuse to cut even more. We discovered that through the line-by-line audit,” she added.

However, the government’s current cuts and future plans to amalgamate services creates a “super bureaucracy and removes the ability for communities, especially small communities to plan, and they will get lost through amalgamation,” said Horwath.

For example, she said the Ford government is attempting to reduce the number of ambulatory service centres from 52 to 10, which could result in one headquarters for Niagara, Haldimand-Norfolk and Hamilton. According to Global News, April’s provincial budget also proposes reducing public health units from 35 to 10 in the province.

Nearing the end of the public meeting, Horwath stated, “We aren’t letting them close the Welland Hospital. They are often the glue that holds the communities together.”

She also accused the provincial government of underfunding hospitals according to accurate levels of inflation, which she estimates at 4 to 5%. The Tory government has only allocated funds based on a 1.8% inflation rate, which causes a shortfall and cutbacks in services.

When asked if any women’s shelters in Niagara would be closed, since the provincial government recently announced $17 million in cuts for victims of violence, Horwath replied the funding for transition houses and many women’s shelters has stopped, or been put on hold. She said $28 million has also been cut from Children’s Aid Societies, as a part of the changes to the Ministry of Community and Social Services. While being interviewed by reporters last week, Ford stated he wasn’t willing to discuss reproductive rights now. However, Horwath cautioned, “We are going to keep a close eye on women’s reproductive rights. There are many different ways to peel an orange.”

When asked what strategies the NDP had for fighting the Tory government, given the fact the Tories have a majority of 76 seats and the NDP have 40, Horwath indicated the many recent protests throughout the province are promising, She acknowledged the recent protest at MPP Sam Oosterhoff’s town hall meeting in Grimsby by women dressed like those in The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, in which much of a woman’s class and role in society is subjugated around birthing.

“That’s what gives us hope. There isn’t a day that doesn’t go by when there isn’t a protest or some sort of disruption in the house,” she said.

Mayors are also expressing disappointment over the downloading of services to the municipalities, and are taking action by making their viewpoints known. Horwath said even conservative backbenchers have to be feeling the heat from many disgruntled citizens.

“What is clear is that people are being vocal in Conservative ridings.”

In reference to the slashing of education budgets, Horwath pointed to the recent walk-out by students across the province. “One hundred thousand students through social media did the protests, not us, or the union. It’s interesting to see how engaged young people are and their ability to connect.”