QUEEN'S PARK — Health Minister Sylvia Jones and MPP Lise Vaugeois sparred in the Ontario legislature Wednesday over the government's response to the shortage of family doctors in the Thunder Bay district.
Vaugeois suggested the Ford government is dragging its heels, but the minister said the member for Thunder Bay-Superior North needed to be more constructive than critical.
During Question Period, the NDP MPP told the house that at least 45,000 residents of the Thunder Bay region currently have no primary care provider.
In Greenstone, she said, the problem will be exacerbated at the end of the month when two doctors depart, and maintained that "seniors are being left without access to any care whatsoever."
She clarified in a statement later that she had been contacted by seniors in Geraldton and Longlac who are concerned they won't be able to access medical care in their own communities because existing clinics are over capacity, and that accessing the emergency room at the Geraldton hospital won't be viable for those without a vehicle.
Vaugeois said there are several things the government can do to improve access to primary care.
In her view, the solution is to "further increase enrolment, create a learn-and-stay program for doctors at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, establish more nurse practitioner-led clinics, reduce the administrative burden on doctors, and create a centralized electronic records and referral system."
Saying these measures need to be implemented "now, not in five years," Vaugeois asked when the government will "invest in the solutions so clearly identified by medical professionals that are not happening now."
In response, the health minister pointed to new openings that have been created for students at NOSM University.
"Twenty additional residency spots were just announced," Jones said, before adding that "There is no one in this chamber that doesn't understand and appreciate that with a growing and aging population we need to do better."
The minister then pointed a finger at the opposition parties, saying she was addressing both the NDP and Liberals as she asked rhetorically "Where would we have been if they hadn't cut those 50 residency spots? We would have had 250 additional practitioners in the province today."
Jones was apparently referring to a 2015 decision by Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government to eliminate 50 medical residency positions, but the move was sharply criticized at the time by the NDP.
She asserted that the current government is "putting the work in, we're making those investments. The member opposite can either choose to work with us or continue to complain, but you will see that there already improvements happening in communities because we are making the investments."
According to data recently released by NOSM University, 46 per cent of the 1,011 physicians who have completed their medical degree and/or residency at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine have remained in the North to practise since it accepted its first cohort in 2005.
This number includes 161 doctors practicing in Northwestern Ontario, of whom 123 are in family medicine.