No government department spends more money than Manitoba Health, and arguably no service government provides is as important.
The budget for Health and Healthy Living this year is $5.6 billion, eating 38.1 per cent of the province's spending pie.
Spending in some individual health categories alone dwarfs that of other departments. The cost of operating Manitoba hospitals is $2.2 billion. Physician fees? That's well over $1 billion.
But in a year in which critics are raging government hasn't done enough to restrain spending, they've noticed the health department -- which expects to spend 2.7 per cent more than it did last year -- is no longer the budget headache it used to be.
"We're seeing a continuing improvement on controlling cost escalation in the health department," said Jim Carr, president and CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba, which has urged the province to employ lean management techniques to get a handle on spending.
Several years ago, business leaders and the government itself were afraid if health spending continued to grow at a pace of five to seven per cent a year, it would soon spark critical cuts in other important areas, such as education, culture and the environment.
"There was a real understanding that health was on a trajectory that would crowd out other important government services. And now that trajectory has been flattened, and that's a good thing," Carr said Tuesday.
Manitoba is getting a handle on health spending while embarking on such ambitious goals as reducing cancer-treatment wait times to under 60 days (from the time a general practitioner suspects the disease in a patient) and ensuring everyone who wants a family doctor gets one by 2015. On Tuesday, the government announced that, as of today, the popular STARS helicopter ambulance service will begin operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, instead of only 12 hours a day. The added service will cost an extra $1.8 million a year.
Health spending is being held relatively in check despite the fact physician billing fees will rise by a whopping 6.4 per cent in the third year of a four-year agreement with doctors after zero per cent increases over the past two years. The fee hike will cost the province an extra $65 million this year.
Health Minister Theresa Oswald said her department has been seeking efficiencies and eliminating waste in a bid to convert savings into front-line care. "We're finding waste and we're reinvesting it," she said Tuesday.
From having the highest rates of health-administrative spending in all of Canada, Manitoba's costs are now among the lowest. An amalgamation of regional health authorities last year was to have saved $10 million over three years. But Oswald said Tuesday the move has already saved $11 million in its first year. The province has also been aggressive in pursuing lower-priced generic drugs, so pharmacare costs, while rising, are no longer soaring.
Still to be announced this year, Oswald said, are new programs to train and recruit doctors and initiatives to modernize paramedicine in Manitoba. She has already challenged an independent report, released Friday, that said recommended improvements to paramedic services would cost more than $5 million a year.
"A lot of time in health care, folks think that we just need to add and add and add (money). And that's not necessarily the case," she said last week. "There are a lot of resources that exist within our system now that we think we can be using better, particularly with the better-trained workforce that we have now."
Meanwhile, Oswald said Tuesday the province plans to boost home-care services to seniors this year and hire additional front-line staff in personal-care homes.