Ontario Telemedicine Network lays off 44 staff

A non-profit agency that helps Ontario patients access health care through videoconferencing has laid off more than 15 per cent of its staff in the wake of a cut to its provincial funding, CBC News has learned.

The Ontario Telemedecine Network (OTN) eliminated 44 staff jobs, an official with the agency told CBC News.

This comes despite repeated promises from Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet ministers that no public sector workers will lose their jobs as a result of PC government funding cuts.

OTN helps deliver what it calls “virtual health care.” It uses videoconferencing technology to link doctors and nurses with patients around the province.

For instance, psychiatrists hold face-to-face consultations with patients, nurses can check in with patients at home after they’ve been discharged, and students living away from home can connect with their family doctor. Small rural hospitals and clinics use OTN’s network to access specialists in Ontario’s larger cities.

A spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott declined to reveal the size of the province’s funding cut.

“We’re in the process of notifying stakeholders about their 2019-20 budgets. As such, it would be inappropriate to comment,” said Elliott’s press secretary Hayley Chazan in an email to CBC News.

Published figures show OTN received $42 million in provincial funding in 2017-18, nearly all of it from the Ministry of Health.

When Elliott announced plans to reform the health system earlier this year, she said the province intends to boost the amount of medical care delivered virtually.

“We look forward to continuing to work with OTN as we implement our long-term strategy to modernize our public health care system,” said Chazan’s statement.

An official with Ontario Telemedicine network said the agency employed 265 staff before the 44 jobs were cut.

“OTN has been planning and preparing a clearly defined approach to aligning our work effectively with the government’s transformation agenda,” said communications director Gabriella Skubincan in a statement emailed to CBC News.

“Unfortunately, these important changes also required staffing reductions.”

Skubincan declined to reveal the size of the funding cut, referring the question back to the Health Ministry.

Ontario Telemedicine Network’s latest annual report says it facilitated nearly 900,000 patient consultations, and saved nearly $72 million that would have been paid in travel grants to patients in northern Ontario.

“This is another cut that will be felt by people who already don’t have equitable access to health services that many people in big centres take for granted,” said NDP health critic France Gélinas in an interview.

The province’s Sunshine List shows 76 employees at Ontario Telemedicine Network received salaries in excess of $100,000 in 2018. CEO Edward Brown topped the list, earning $586,111. Ten other executives earned more than $200,000 each.

Established in 2006, OTN is separate from Telehealth, which allows people to pick up the phone to ask routine medical questions.

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