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Q & A: One year in, health care overhaul key for MPP Christine Elliott

Deputy Premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott talks to NewmarketToday about transforming the health-care system, changes to education, making alcohol a choice, the most pressing local issue, her health and more

“Promises Made, Promises Kept” was the headline on the news release from the Premier’s Office marking the first anniversary since “Ontario's Government for the People” was swept into power last June.

“Over the past year, the government has kept the promises it made to the people of Ontario. They include restoring trust, accountability, and transparency; putting more money in people's pockets; cleaning up the hydro mess; cutting hospital wait times, and; making Ontario open for business and open for jobs,” the statement said.

Since his Progressive Conservative government took office, Premier Doug Ford said more than 190,000 jobs have been created and a plan is in place to balance the budget while protecting core services like health care and education. 

Yet it has been a tumultuous year since Ford and his PCs took over the reins of the province, pushing through a multitude of reforms and an austerity budget with cuts in education, health care, public health, child care, library services, legal and student aid, and the environment.

Protests are rampant — the local group Common Ground holds weekly protests at MPP Christine Elliott’s Newmarket office — and polls show plunging popularity.

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Messages from cabinet ministers and MPPs appear carefully controlled with shared key talking points, scripted news releases are sent out to local media and coordinated social media campaigns are required of all members, particularly on issues such as fighting the federal carbon tax and cancelling The Beer Store contract.

Deputy Premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott echoed many of the premier's statements when meeting with NewmarketToday in her Newmarket constituency office to mark her first anniversary as Newmarket-Aurora MPP.

What’s the most impactful thing your government has done for the residents of Newmarket in the last year?

“From my perspective as health minister, I would say the transformation of the health- care system that we have started and are continuing to work on has been the most important thing for me.”

“I think some of the work that’s already being done at Southlake (Regional Health Centre) is leading in that direction, but there’s more that government needs to do in order to make sure that people feel that they are supported in health care in whatever situation they are in, whether they are in hospital, long-term care or receiving home care — the status quo is not acceptable.”

Elliott said a better health-care experience will be achieved with “more connected” and integrated care.

But “it’s not something that is going to happen overnight,” she cautioned. 

Last week, Elliott found herself repeating that message after Ford declared overcrowding in hospitals would be solved within the year.

“There is a really simple way of saying why you’re doing it, for the reasons I’ve just mentioned, but the actual mechanism of how to do it has about a thousand moving parts. It’s complicated to try to re-organize the system, but we’ve found that health-care providers are really encouraged and excited about the prospect of being able to work together to provide the kind of care that they want to provide to patients and families. And they are willing partners in the entire enterprise,” she said.

Is there a tangible improvement in the health-care system that people are seeing right now?

Elliott pointed to Southlake's “At Home” program, in which the hospital has partnered with community home-care providers to ensure a seamless transition for patients before they leave the hospital.

She acknowledges the initiative was developed by Southlake and local partners after the Ford government “announced the general direction”.

“It’s really what we’re looking for to see happening across the province,” she said. “I think Southlake and the home-care partners are being really innovative and communicating and collaborating really well together.”

Southlake has indicated it wants to lead a local Ontario Health Team, is that something you can see happening?

Last February, Elliott announced Ontario is consolidating local and provincial health networks to create a central superagency, called Ontario Health, with cuts subsequently occurring at the 14 local health integration networks, Cancer Care Ontario, eHealth Ontario and several other agencies.

More than 157 applications were received from across the province from groups of health-care providers — a mix of hospitals, home-care organizations, long-term care homes and mental health organizations — which were reviewed to determine which ones would proceed to the next step of the process, Elliott said.

This week, Southlake and partners announced they had been selected to proceed.

Your government has indicated a willingness to rethink some of its decisions, what’s your take on that? Is there a lesson learned that stands out in the last year?

Premier Ford himself has acknowledged he would have implemented changes to the autism file differently. Last February, the government moved to revamp the Ontario Autism Program and clear the 20,000-child waitlist for therapy. The decision outraged families, who received a dramatic cut in funding. The government said the program would be changed again, following a new round of consultations.

Elliott simply reinforced her government’s willingness to consult before taking action. 

“We have moved very quickly, 20 pieces of legislation dealing with a number of issues that had to be changed in order to get our health-care system back on track, to get our business systems back on track where they are going to be able to hire people and even continue to do business in Ontario. I’m very proud of all of that," she said.

“What I would say is that we are willing to listen. I think listening and consulting is really important before taking action. That is certainly something that we are certainly trying to do in health, then you know that you will make good decisions because you understand the entire perspective of what you’re proposing to do.”

What is the most pressing concern in Newmarket?

Elliott quickly identified approval of the $604-million Upper York Sewage System, which is the Regional Municipality of York’s proposed and funded new wastewater treatment facility in East Gwillimbury that has faced a three-year delay over strong opposition from the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. The facility would pump an additional 47 million litres per day of treated wastewater into the Lake Simcoe watershed to accommodate growth in Newmarket, Aurora and East Gwillimbury. 

“That has a potentially huge impact on many parts of York Region, but particularly East Gwillimbury, Newmarket and Aurora, because it’s getting to the point where growth may actually come to a stop unless this issue can be resolved. So, that has obvious concerns for developers but also businesses that want to locate here — any kind of business, restaurants, all the businesses downtown. 

“It’s a huge issue and one that I know is my responsibility to speak with the minister of (Environment), Conservation and Parks about that, and I am going to see if we can set up a meeting with the relevant mayors and people from municipalities to discuss it as it’s an important and pressing issue.”

Both the Region of York and Simcoe County have asked your government not to move ahead with the proposed merger of the public health units. What’s your reaction to that?

The decision to reduce the number of public health units in the province from 35 to 10 is not up for reconsideration, Elliott said.

“And that remains our decision because this was something that was raised by the auditor general several years ago." 

However, she said she recently met with the Public Health Association to listen to its concerns.

“They indicated to me that they know some changes have to be made and that they were concerned more about the timelines to achieve the changes. They believe the timelines are too quick, and that there needs to be more municipal representation at the table to discuss the nature of some of these changes. We are listening, no conclusions have been made, but we are listening.”

Elliott added there is some urgency to have the timeline in place before budgets are approved — “this can’t sit around for six months”. 

What do you say to constituents who are concerned or confused about what’s going on with education — smaller class sizes, lost teacher jobs and funding cuts?

York Region District School Board chairperson Corrie McBain has expressed concerns about changes to education, including the autism program, increased class sizes, mandatory online learning, and loss of about 300 teaching positions in secondary schools.

Elliot said her government is “protecting” education, which, along with health care, are what matter most to constituents. She said the Ford government is “putting more money” toward those files, more than $700 million to education and $1.3 billion to health care.

“I know there are a lot of questions that people have about what specifically is happening in education because there has been so much information, and some misinformation out there,” she acknowledged before deferring to the newly appointed minister of education, Stephen Lecce. 

“I can’t speak for him, but I would say that he wants to put the public’s mind at ease about what the true picture is and the fact that we are investing in education and want to let people know more specifically what we’re doing, including helping children with special needs because I know there are a lot of parents of children with autism and other developmental and physical special needs are worried about what’s going to happen with their children come the fall."

Alcohol has a huge impact on our health-care system. As health minister, how do you support making it more accessible? 

The Ford government passed a bill last month to support the dissolution of a 10-year agreement with The Beer Store that limits the number of stores that can sell alcohol, which may end up costing up to $1 billion. Then the Province announced beverage alcohol would be sold in hundreds of additional grocery stores and new “LCBO Convenience Outlets” this summer.

Increasing accessibility to alcohol doesn’t sit well with many Ontarians, including the Ontario Public Health Association, which says one in three Ontarians experience harm due to someone else’s drinking, and that the province spends $5.3 billion annually on alcohol-related health care, enforcement and lost productivity. Alcohol is a leading risk factor for disease, disability and premature death in Canada. 

“We think it’s more important that people have choice,” Elliott said, adding, in certain parts of the province where LCBO and agency outlets aren’t available, “it’s not as easy” to purchase beer, wine and spirits. “Having beer available in convenience stores is a matter of choice.

“Alcohol, like cannabis, while they are legal products, it doesn’t mean they are benign products. People have a responsibility to use these products in moderation and, as a government, we have a responsibility to really remind people that they need to be careful when they are using these products, as well. So, I certainly am mindful of my duties as health minister in this context.”

Is there one thing in particular in the last year that you’ve learned about your Newmarket constituents?

“I’m very impressed with the community spirit both in Newmarket and Aurora, that people are extremely generous and very supportive of a number of different initiatives in the community, from food banks to helping vulnerable people.

“I’m also very impressed with the physical landscape and how active people are and how that’s been brought into planning design for both Newmarket and Aurora in terms of parks, trails, off-leash parks for dogs... And that to me, as health minister, is very important. I wish all communities across Ontario had the same facilities and the same perspective as the people of Newmarket-Aurora.”

Do you have a favourite place in Newmarket?

“I love the downtown. I think the area, the square, to be able to have that gathering place for people is wonderful, to be able to have the water facility, skating facility, being able to gather people for music concerts and so on is just a wonderful community space.”

Do you intend to move to Newmarket-Aurora?

Elliott currently lives in the Annex neighbourhood of Toronto with two of her three sons.

“Right now, it’s more family issues and family ties that are keeping me in the Annex, but in the future, I will be looking for a place here.”

How is your health?

Elliott was seriously injured in an accident at her Haliburton cottage two years ago that broke the temporal bone at the base of her skull and saw her hospitalized for more than a month and undergoing months of rehabilitation to regain her ability to walk and speak. When the accident occurred, Elliott was serving as Ontario’s patient ombudsman.

“I’ve been fully cleared to work full time, with no restrictions,” Elliott responded with firmness. “I’m fine.”

Does an accident like that help you to empathize with people dealing with concussions and head injuries?

Elliott said she was first taken by ambulance to Haliburton Highlands Health Service, then airlifted by Ornge to the trauma unit at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. After 10 days at Sunnybrook, she was transferred to Bridgepoint Active Healthcare for physical and occupational therapy for a month.

As a result of the accident, Elliott said she had to relearn how to walk, and had memory lapses and found it difficult to speak in full sentences and remember words.

“But for their work, I don’t know if I would have been able to go back to work as patient ombudsman and get back into politics after that. I was very fortunate to receive wonderful care. We have great health care in Ontario. Is it always as connected as we want it to be? I think that’s what we need to work on and integrate it to make sure it’s seamless for patients.”

“Yes, there seems to be a growing understanding among people who play sports that if you have a concussion, you need to take it seriously and give it time to heal and perhaps not engage in that sport anymore.

“I think also the fact that I have been a patient has helped me to understand a bit more the patient perspective, how you feel as a patient, and how you are really dependent on others and the health-care system to get well.” 

The government is taking a lengthy break from the Legislature, what are your plans for the next several months?

Planning to take only one week of vacation this summer, Elliott responded that as well as having meetings in her community office, she will be “really busy” at Queen’s Park working on “the transformation file”.

“I need to have the time to do the work and meet with people in other parts of the province,” she said.

And while she doesn’t have plans to get involved in the federal election campaign, “I may go knock on a few doors with people who are friends,” she said.

Is there any message that you want to get out to Newmarket-Aurora residents? 

“It’s an honour to serve as their MPP and that our office door is open if they have questions or issues. I would be happy to contact them by phone or meet with them.”


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Debora Kelly

About the Author: Debora Kelly

Debora Kelly is NewmarketToday's editor. She is an award-winning journalist and communications professional who is passionate about building strong communities through engagement, advocacy and partnership.
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