Austerity won’t save health care – fighting poverty will
Recently Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews made a speech to the Toronto Board of Trade in which she introduced changes to the province’s health care system. Hmmm – interesting choice of audiences. The Ontario government is preparing for an upcoming provincial budget. It is widely expected to contain drastic spending cuts as recommended by economist Don Drummond, who was hired to write a report on how to cut provincial costs and increase revenues. A recent Toronto Star article claims Drummond does this work for love, not money, and I suppose it’s easy to love one’s work when you’re earning $1500 a day. I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m guessing increased corporate taxation may not be the bedrock of his recommendations, although apparently significant cuts in the name of “austerity” and a major overhaul of the health care system will be.
Although we have yet to see the contents of Mr. Drummond’s report, slated for release February 15th, we already know what will work. I feel like the kid in class with her hand thrust into the air: “Ms Matthews – pick me! Pick me! I know this one….!” Yes – if Deb Matthews and the Ontario government want to reduce health care spending, all they have to do is – reduce poverty – the single most important modifiable factor determining whether someone is healthy or not.
Not long ago the Ontario government released a so-called "Poverty Reduction Plan" promising to reduce poverty for 25% of poor Ontario children by the end of 2013. Its limited focus on child poverty would be laughable were it not so sad. The McGuinty government would have us believe that "focusing on children" (or more accurately, one in four poor children) will break the cycle of poverty. Increasing the Ontario Child Benefit from $50 to just over $100 monthly per child (spread out over four years) will undoubtedly buy more macaroni and cheese, but break the cycle? Please. No amount of wishful thinking will get that notion airborne.
And while the plan’s after-school programs and parenting centres are not necessarily bad ideas, they are insufficient, and worse, reminiscent of the bad old days. In 1917, the Ontario Board of Health created Infant Welfare Centres and the Rural Child Welfare Project, which employed public health nurses to educate low income and immigrant women on parenting. Based on the fallacious notion that the health of poor children was related to their parents' ignorance and not their poverty, it did not work then and frankly no amount of education and moral support now will erase the fact that families all across Ontario are struggling to afford the twin luxuries of housing and food. Further, the provincial plan is contingent on two unlikely puzzle pieces falling into place: a strong economy and a federal government coming willingly to the table to pony up significant dollar amounts.
Low income people have short life expectancies, higher rates of costly chronic diseases such as diabetes, and poorer access to health care. Serious about reducing health system costs? Increase social assistance rates (which in real terms have fallen 55% since 1995) and the minimum wage, which will reduce poverty, which will reduce illness, which will reduce health care costs. As income inequity increases, which it will after massive cuts to social spending, so do illness rates and health care costs.
Austerity is code used by wealthy people to avoid higher taxes and get the rest of us to bear the pain so they can keep making money. Don’t fall for it.