The New Democratic Party has promised to make mental health services part of Ontario’s public health insurance program if elected in June, starting with free access to counseling and therapy services.
Leader Andrea Horwath on Sunday unveiled seven pages of her party’s election platform, committing $1.15 billion to a universal mental health care plan that would allow Ontarians to access psychotherapy services using their OHIP card.
“In Ontario, people are suffering in silence because they can’t afford therapy. People leave their doctor or hospital with a referral for advice – knowing they need ongoing care, but knowing they will never be able to afford it,” the platform says.
“Ensuring free mental health care will give people somewhere to turn. This will mean we can address mental health challenges before they become mental health crises.
The first step in the plan will be to expand OHIP coverage to include a minimum of six psychotherapy treatments, increasing to 12 sessions for patients who need it. The party will begin this process with an immediate investment of $500 million.
“This approach allows people to start with six sessions and decide with their care provider whether to enroll in stage two or move on to more complex care,” officials said.
The NDP will also fund cognitive behavioral therapy training for doctors, nurses, community health workers and social workers to increase the number of practitioners.
Under the current OHIP system, mental health services are provided free of charge upon admission to hospital or involvement in the criminal justice system.
A family physician or community nurse can provide therapy services if trained to do so; however, the waiting list could be long.
“Most family doctors don’t have the training required to offer in-depth and continuous psychotherapy and refer patients to a psychiatrist. The treatment choices available to patients may be limited by the experience and expertise of the psychiatrist,” the plan states.
“Many patients would benefit from talk therapy, whereas psychiatrists typically focus on medical approaches. There are nurses, social workers, and community health workers who provide free or low-cost therapy in “community” mental health organizations. However, even these organizations have waiting lists.
A new coordinating body called “Mental Health Ontario” would also be created to work on public reporting of mental health data, including wait times. They will also help identify and develop provincial mental health standards and ensure the delivery of comprehensive mental health and addictions programs.
The NDP is also promising to reduce the waiting list for child and youth mental health services to 30 days.
In addition to the $1.15 billion for universal mental health care, the NDP says it will commit $130 million over three years to reduce the waiting list for children’s mental health services, additional funding of $24 million for branches of the Canadian Mental Health Association and $17 million for mobile crisis teams and safe beds.
According to Horwath, for every dollar invested in mental health, an additional dollar will be saved in the long term for social, emergency and justice services.
Addressing a large crowd at Evergreen Brickworks on Sunday, Horwath reminded residents of promises his party had made before, including a $20 minimum wage.
“When the dust settles on June 2, we will form a government and start doing that,” she said. “Hope is on the way.”
Horwath said about 500,000 Ontarians with mental health needs don’t have access to appropriate services because they don’t have insurance.
“Our universal mental health care plan will give everyone, from children to seniors, from Windsor in the south to Red Lake in the north, from Cornwall in the east to Kenora in the west, the services and treatment sanity they need,” Horwath told the crowd.
“My friends, we are going to bring mental health services into OHIP where they belong!”
Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative Party, for its part, is committed $3.8 billion over 10 years “to expand existing programs and fill gaps in care with innovative solutions and services.”
In the the platform of the Green Party of Ontario, $6.6 billion would be spent over four years on mental health and addictions services, including expanded coverage under OHIP and a province-wide hotline.
The Ontario Liberals have yet to release their election platform.