Opinion: Public Health needs a better political strategy

Chronic underfunding fetters life-saving public health efforts in Canada

Opinion: Public Health needs a better political strategy

Cuts to public health funding by the Ontario government announced in April have taken the media by storm, leading a tripartisan group of previous Ontario Health Ministers to urge the government to reverse its decision.

But is this political treatment of public health a new phenomenon, or is this appended to a long history of budgetary cuts and perceived underfunding of its practice and research?

Another event in a long-lasting pattern

Dr. Steven J. Hoffman — the Scientific Director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Population & Public Health — and his colleagues would agree with the latter. In a timely paper published in May, the authors argue that public health in Canada is underfunded.

They assert that the 5.5 per cent of total Canadian health spending allocated to public health practice fails to sufficiently fund the range of work that public health practitioners are expected to undertake — from food and drug safety, to occupational health, to health inspection, and more.

More importantly, Hoffman and his colleagues point out that the current rise in the frequency of chronic disease, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders in Canada has failed to garner a “significant” increase in budget allocation to the appropriate venues of public health.

They say that this results from the public health community lacking an appreciation for the process of policymaking, which causes them to fail to account for the reasons why public health isn’t a clear win from a political perspective.

As a solution, the authors propose developing knowledge of political tools and processes among public health officials.

Public health saves lives

Public health efforts are focused on long-term goals, such as preventing, rather than curing, illnesses, or on analyses of statistical trends within the field. Often, its work seems intangible to the public, and is not exploitable by politicians.

Attempts to pull down the 28.1 per cent Canadian adult obesity rate, for example, would require public health officials to target multiple industries. They may need to advocate for businesses to change food labelling, health care providers to provide more expansive training programs, or ask municipalities to adjust local regulations, according to the 2011 Obesity in Canada federal report.

Such efforts aim to change individual behaviour on a large scale through multiple forms of societal intervention. However, it is difficult for non-experts to trace their effects back to conscious public health efforts.

The more these efforts are hidden from voters, the less clout they gather on the political agenda of politicians, who are already wary of being unable to reap rewards from these efforts within the timeframe of the election cycle.

Solutions to the lack of political will for public health funding

To solve this problem, the authors ask for members of the public health community to better appreciate the policy-making process and the actors involved in it, so that public health agencies can adapt strategies to the kind of policy-making network relevant to specific healthcare issues.

They similarly argued for improved understanding of policy instruments — regulation, communication, taxing, and spending — so that the regulatory tools used for public health can be better used. Increased efforts to spread awareness of public health efforts may counter its lack of priority in the voter base.

In the wake of the opioid overdose crisis, mental health crisis, and spread of preventable chronic diseases forming the leading causes of death in the province, public health cannot be more vital in addressing our most urgent needs. Whether the output of a work is deemed tangible or not by some individuals should not make the verdict over the survival of that field of work.

Nonetheless, concerted effort to engage with the political system in the push for improved funding and policy can ultimately win over politicians and policymakers.

Graduate Students’ Union investigating OISE elections

Executives report on mental health advocacy, freeze honoraria in anticipation of funding cuts

Graduate Students’ Union investigating OISE elections

An investigatory committee was commissioned by the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) to evaluate the integrity of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Graduate Students’ Association (OISE GSA) elections, during a UTGSU General Council meeting on April 23.

The committee’s mandate is to assess whether the OISE GSA violated its constitution, following the alleged firing of its Chief Returning Officer (CRO), according to a GSU member at the meeting. The CRO is responsible for overseeing elections.

Five council members volunteered to join the committee, which is authorized to assess the possible constitutional violation until June 1.

According to a UTGSU representative who spoke at the meeting, the committee lacks the power to compel testimony through subpoena. However, it does have the ability to interview witnesses willing to testify, review meeting minutes of the OISE GSA, and present an assessment to the Council on whether the OISE GSA violated its constitution.

In an email to The Varsity, the OISE GSA Executive wrote that they “never had doubts about the integrity of following the elections process as outlined by [their] Constitution.”

The Executive noted that their elections had not begun by the time of the General Council meeting when these allegations of election fraud were brought forward, and that they are following regulations set by its Constitution to “re-set the Elections process.”

The UTGSU Executive Committee verified that the committee was struck before having a chance to “invite and receive a statement by the [OISE GSA] Executive and Council,” but also wrote that it believed it would be “inappropriate for the UTGSU Executive to ask the OISE GSA for a statement prior to the striking of the committee, as this would have constituted the beginning of an investigation.”

UTGSU executives also report on advocacy work towards expanding mental health services

External Commissioner Cristina Jaimungal also reported on work by the executive team on responding to U of T’s mental health crisis.

Jaimungal spoke on the launch of the first webpage specific for U of T graduate students to access mental health resources, which has received 5,000 visits so far. She also reported on the addition of a graduate-specific accessibility counselor at the School of Graduate Studies, as well as the expansion of a bursary to allow part-time professional students access to U of T gyms over the summer.

UTGSU executives further vote to freeze honoraria increases, following cuts due to Student Choice Initiative

Finance Commissioner Branden Rizzuto also introduced a motion drafted by the executives to freeze their own honoraria.

Rizzuto explained that the executive honoraria has been tied to a CUPE 3902, Unit 1 Collective Agreement, which has caused the executive honoraria to rise with increases of Teaching Assistant wages. CUPE 3902 is a union for U of T education workers.

The honoraria were slated to increase by two per cent the following year. However, in anticipation of funding cuts to the UTGSU as a result of the Ontario government’s Student Choice Initiative, the executives introduced the motion to cancel the raise and freeze their honoraria.

The motion passed in a vote by members of the General Council.