TORONTO - Health Minister Deb Matthews is promising to crack down on the use of lobbyists by hospitals amid criticism that scarce health-care dollars are being wasted on trying to influence the government.

The New Democrats raised the issue in the legislature Monday after they found that at least 14 hospitals have firms registered on the province's list of lobbyists.

Four hospitals still have lobbyists on the active list, the party said. The rest of the contracts ended over the summer after NDP researchers started digging around.

It's still not clear how much money is being wasted on lobbyists, as only three hospitals were willing to say how much they spent, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

They included Mississauga's Credit Valley Hospital, which spent $80,000, Brampton's William Osler Health System with almost $78,000 and Tillsonburg District Memorial Hospital with $35,000.

Both Tillsonburg and Credit Valley hired StrategyCorp Inc., a Liberal-friendly firm whose key lobbyists include Premier Dalton McGuinty's former staffers, Horwath said. The Liberals fired back, pointing out that StrategyCorp also employs a number of former Conservative operatives.

William Osler has cut operating room and emergency services and patients at Credit Valley lost physiotherapy and dietician services, Horwarth said.

"Why are precious health-care dollars being diverted to insider lobbyists instead of being used for doctors, for nurses and for front-line care?" she asked McGuinty in the legislature.

McGuinty was quick to condemn the practice, but didn't say what steps he'd take to stop it.

"It is unacceptable in Ontario today for hospital administration to employ lobbyists to try to influence our government," he told the legislature.

"If they want to talk to us, they should pick up the phone."

Matthews said she's looking at a range of options to stop hospitals from hiring lobbyists, but wouldn't elaborate further.

Asked whether she has the necessary tools to end the practice, Matthews replied: "Hospitals get 85 per cent of their money from government, so yes, I think we do."

Matthews said she's already spoken to some hospitals about lobbying and has instructed her staff not to speak to any hired guns advocating on a hospital's behalf.

It appears that some hospitals are hiring lobbyists in an attempt to jump the queue on capital projects, she said.

"There is change coming," she vowed. "We're working to fix this problem."

But opposition parties say the Liberals have been dragging their heels on hospital lobbying.

"I think if the government's really serious they'll issue a memo telling them that that has to stop, that they can't spend the money for those purposes," said Progressive Conservative health critic Christine Elliott.

"They talk about it being wrong. Actions speak louder than words. Send the memo and stop it now."

McGuinty and Matthews still haven't made good on their long-overdue promise to put hospitals under freedom-of-information laws, Horwath added.

"It's not good enough for them to shrug their shoulders and say, 'Oh, we agree with the opposition. This is the wrong thing to do,'" she said.

"They're the government. They should put a stop to it once and for all."

The Ontario Hospital Association said it has discouraged hospitals from using lobbyists, most recently in a Aug. 5 memo that warned hospitals to stop the practice after both NDP and Tory researchers started poking around.

Hospital board chairs and CEOs should be the ones speaking to the government on behalf of their facilities, said OHA president and CEO Tom Closson. But the association, which took that position about five years ago, can only do so much to convince hospitals to stay away from lobbyists.

"We're just an association," he said. "It's up to the hospitals themselves to make the decision or up to the government to enforce it."

The NDP's list of hospitals that hired lobbyists include Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and St. Joseph's Health Centre, Rouge Valley Health System, Lakeridge Health, Burlington's Joseph Brant Memorial, St. Thomas Elgin General, Royal Victoria in Barrie, Halton Healthcare System, Woodstock General, Vaughan Health Campus of Care and Ottawa Hospital.

Lobbyists hired by Credit Valley, Tillsonburg, Rouge Valley and Vaughan Health are still listed as active, according to the party.

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