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On health care, Ontario PC's Hudak battles memories of Harris cuts

Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak, centre, arrives for a photo-op with wife Deb Hutton, left, and their three-year-old daughter Miller in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 6, 2011.

Darren Calabrese/darren calabrese The Globe and Mail

As Tim Hudak tries to sell the province's voters on his health care plan, he knows the lingering ghost of a former cost-cutting Conservative government is never far away.

To battle the suspicion that his government would cut through health budgets and send nurses packing like the Mike Harris government did in the 1990s, he's sharing his family's own experiences spending long weeks at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children in order to try and convince voters he understands the importance of front-line care.

His daughter Miller was born six weeks premature, and more recently faced a three-week hospitalization for an undisclosed, but serious, illness. The happy three-year-old is a steady presence on the campaign trail, and often travels with Mr. Hudak when she's not in school.

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"Investing more in health care is necessary and prudent," he said as he stood beside an ultrasound machine at St. Joseph's Hospital, flanked by the two nurses in scrubs. "I personally know from my family's experience how important it is to have quality health care where and when you need it … to me it's personal."

Health care is one of only two areas of provincial spending – the other is education – the party will spend more on if it wins the election. It's also one of the party's biggest vulnerabilities, as the memory of the Harris' government nurse layoffs and hospital closures remains poignant in many minds.

Mr. Hudak was part of that government, serving as parliamentary assistant to the health minister, and will need to repel constant attacks from his opponents who suggest that once he's elected he'll need to start closing hospitals in order to fund his campaign promises.

To counter, he's emphasizing that he understands the challenges facing the system because he's seen them from inside as his daughter received care. He's quick to say his daughter received excellent care, but said that doctors and nurses often appeared "run off their feet." He said they also expressed concern they were spending too much time filling in papers as opposed to providing care.

"It's clear we need to do a lot better," he said.

The Conservative campaign made a morning stop at the Hamilton facility to talk about a healthcare plan that would see funding increase by $6.1-billion a year over the next four years, and the elimination of local health networks that the party says divert money toward bureaucracy rather than patient care.

The party has vowed to bring 40,000 new and renovated long-term care beds and establish guarantees for both wait times and levels of service. Mr. Hudak said hospital executives who do not meet his targets could have their pay packages reduced.

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The Liberals would be happy to fight the Conservatives on health care – much of their campaign is based on touting improvements made to the system during their eight years in power. They helped to build 18 hospitals, the campaign says, and point to reduced wait times for certain surgeries.

They are also happy to mention that the Harris government ordered 28 hospital closed and fired 6,000 nurses. The Liberals have also added a campaign pledge to provide funding for house calls so that doctors can get out to see senior patients more often.

The New Democrats, meanwhile, have also matched the Conservative pledge to abolish Local Health Integration Networks and promised to cut emergency-room wait times in half.

NDP health critic France Gélinas avoided going for Mr. Hudak's Harris-era record, but yesterday argued creating tens of thousands of long-term care beds does little good if the people occupying them would be better served through home care, which the NDP has promised to expand.

"This number is quite high when we haven't really done a good job at trying to provide the services people really want," she said. "They want to be supported in their own homes."

Mr. Hudak is ready to fight both parties on health, and is ready to cite personal experiences when needed. In fact, he's even willing to conscript the help of family members who haven't accessed the system yet.

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"[My wife]Debbie and I can visit a city and see how restaurants and hotels are rated, but there's nothing like that for our healthcare system," he said. "If my mom gets her knees done, I want to make sure she knows she can get that done where she can get the best possible results and they treat the patient well throughout their entire experience."

With files from Anna Mehler Paperny

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