TORONTO — Ontario doctors who received loans from the province during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to cover increased costs and offset revenue losses stemming from lower patient volumes will now have one year to pay those sums back.
The Ontario government laid out plans to recoup the money in a memo issued to the Ontario Medical Association on Friday. The province said it is “critical” to recover more than $521 million in outstanding loan payments from the COVID-19 Advance Payment Program in order to fund other priorities.
The combination of low COVID-19 infection rates and strong vaccine uptake throughout the province suggests the time is right to “transition to a post-pandemic state,” it added.
“When we introduced this program, we were clear that these payments would need to be paid back, as is the case with any loan,” the memo stated.
“These funds are critical for important priorities like expanding access to team-based primary care, home care, mental health services and shortening wait times for key surgeries and procedures.”
The province launched the COVID-19 Advance Payment Program in April 2020 to provide monthly automated advance payments to physicians at rates equivalent to 70 per cent of their average income.
Beginning next month, the Ministry of Health will recover that money by deducting pay from physicians’ monthly OHIP payments over a one-year period, rather than the original five-month timeline it first proposed, with no interest charged.
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“The ministry has conducted an analysis against providers’ recent billings and is extremely confident in the ability for those who still owe to repay any outstanding loans,” it said in the memo.
“That said, in the event that an individual provider is concerned about their ability to repay the loan, the ministry is willing to consider extending the timeline for recovery to mitigate the financial impact.”
Physicians with questions related to their individual circumstances and repayment schedules are advised to contact the ministry’s service support centre.
“As Ontario and the rest of the world continues to a post-pandemic transition, we have seen billings return to normal and are confident in the ability in those who owe to repay outstanding loans,” Hannah Jensen, spokeswoman for Health Minister Sylvia Jones, said in an emailed statement.
“The $521 million in recovered funds will be reinvested in our healthcare system to improve access to more connected and convenient care by shortening wait times and expanding primary care, home care and mental health services.”
Loan repayments initially began in April 2021 and the ministry said it has recovered nearly $139 million out of the total $660 million provided since then.
But the loan recovery process was quickly paused as the third wave of the pandemic wreaked havoc in Ontario that month. After collecting the first round of instalments, the province temporarily stopped deducting pay from doctors in May 2021 “until further notice.”
“Resumption of repayments will be driven by the circumstances of the pandemic,” it said in a memo to doctors at the time.
The Ontario Medical Association said it “appreciates that the government did not try to recover the advance payments during the height of the pandemic,” noting some physicians have already voluntarily repaid advances made under the program.
“The OMA worked with the government to spread these repayments over 12 months instead of the originally planned five months, recognizing that physicians are working hard to catch up on the pandemic backlog and that many of them are suffering from high levels of burnout,” association spokesperson Leslie Shepherd said in a statement.