TORONTO - More than 400 health-sector workers are being laid off in Ontario as the Progressive Conservative government moves to merge 20 agencies into one.
The 416 people in "back-office positions" such as communications, planning, data analytics and financial services will lose their jobs and another 409 vacant positions will be eliminated, health officials said.
The province is consolidating 14 local health integration networks, Cancer Care Ontario, eHealth Ontario and other agencies into a new organization called Ontario Health.
Premier Doug Ford repeatedly promised during last year's election that "not a single person will lose their job" under his government, but denied Wednesday that he has broken that promise.
"I'll stick with my quote: 'No front-line person will lose a job,'" he said near Sudbury, Ont.
Ford's message has shifted in recent months to add the "front-line" qualifier to his original promise, and Health Minister Christine Elliott said Wednesday that is what the premier meant all along.
"Certainly my understanding from the comments by the premier was with respect to no front-line job losses would be happening," she said in an interview. "So, he has been clear on that."
Elliott said that while some health workers will be able to be re-hired in similar roles once the Ontario Health agency starts filling its back-office positions, not everyone will be.
"Ontario Health is doing their own calculations with respect to their job requirements in the back-office area and we will be speaking with them about that very soon, but I unfortunately don't think it's likely that all of those people who are laid off today will be able to be employed by Ontario Health," she said.
Each agency having its own administrative and back-office support needlessly duplicates operations and takes money from patient care, Elliott said.
Eliminating the back-office positions will allow the government to put more money into front-line care, she said. Cancer Care Ontario has already used $1.6 million in back-office savings to fund medical scan services in Sudbury, Elliott said.
The government projects the overall system changes will save $350 million a year by 2021-22, and a senior official said recently that $250 million will be saved this year.
The news of the health job losses comes the same week as a treatment centre for children with disabilities announced that it is eliminating 291 full-time positions — and bringing 178 people back on nine-month contracts, leaving 113 without jobs — as a result of the government's changes to autism funding.
New Democrat Marit Stiles said neither of Ford's promises on jobs have panned out.
"Doug Ford said no one would lose their job ... then he said no front-line workers would lose their job," she said. "That simply was not true. He was making stuff up."
Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod said in a statement Tuesday that there will likely be further autism-related "staffing changes," but she anticipates that as the program shifts to providing funding directly to families instead of service providers, there will be more demand for therapy and that will lead to more jobs.
The program as originally announced in February would have given each family on the wait list up to $20,000 a year until their child turns six, and $5,000 a year until age 18, but families protested, saying those amounts weren't nearly enough, particularly for kids with severe needs whose therapy can cost up to $80,000 a year.
MacLeod eventually backtracked, promising to double the program's budget to roughly $600 million and to look at how to add needs-based supports with an expert committee.
But families are skeptical of the claims, complaining that they haven't yet received any money — the government says cheques are in the mail — and haven't yet seen any evidence of the doubled budget.
The premier expressed frustration Wednesday with autism families' continuing protests.
"We're helping them and they're protesting?" Ford said. "I don't know. I question that."