Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Playing politics with northern health

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FLIN FLON -- A provincially ordered review of the NOR-MAN Regional Health Authority, released a year ago, described a "rivalry" between The Pas and Flin Flon when it came to precious health-care resources.

If health care is the source of conflict for northerners now, things are about to get a whole lot worse.

The NDP government is amalgamating the NOR-MAN and Burntwood regional health authorities into one mega authority known as the Northern Health Region.

Unlike other health authority mergers taking place across Manitoba, centralizing health care in this region makes little sense from a geographical point of view -- what the north lacks in population, it makes up for in land mass.

Covering about 61 per cent of the provincial map, the north -- usually defined as The Pas (to the west) and St. Theresa Point (to the east) and everything north to the Nunavut border -- accounts for some six per cent of Manitoba's population, with roughly 74,000 residents.

Several First Nations communities in the region lack year-round roads. The three major centres are separated by at least 90 minutes, in the case of Flin Flon and The Pas, and roughly four hours in the case of Flin Flon/The Pas and Thompson.

But none of that matters because the amalgamation allows the NDP to finally rid itself of two of its biggest headaches up north.

Both NOR-MAN, headquartered in Flin Flon, and Burntwood, based in Thompson, have in recent years become sources of embarrassment for the government tasked with overseeing them.

In Burntwood, a 2006 internal audit uncovered all sorts of financial monkey business. Among the lowlights: the provision of interest-free loans for vice-presidents, travel expenses going $200,000 over budget, and thousands spent on, of all things for a health-care organization, cigarettes.

Then just last year, the external review of NOR-MAN identified a whole host of problems, including dysfunctional work environments, poor communication with the public and concern among patients over the competency of physicians.

A subsequent financial audit of NOR-MAN raised eyebrows further, uncovering a gym membership for the CEO (in Winnipeg, no less) and missing documentation to back up reimbursed expenses.

In the minds of many served by these health authorities, the very names "NOR-MAN" and "Burntwood" have become so tarred that even very real improvements to care are dismissed in the acrimony.

Thus, given the opportunity, and without any advance notice to northerners, Health Minister Theresa Oswald unceremoniously announced the two health authorities would unite, no ifs, ands or buts about it.

So let the games begin. First up will be a fight over where to situate the Northern Health Region's head office. The edge goes to Thompson, not just based on its size, but because, well, Thompson is the Toronto of the north; everything must go there.

Once that matter is settled, we can look forward to the Flin Flon-The Pas "rivalry" expanding across the north. It matters not that the province is mandating what it calls a "local health involvement group" to ensure a "more responsive" health authority.

The trouble with trying to rule by committee on health care is people are out for their own communities and their own care. Health care is among the most fundamental functions of government, so folks from The Pas are not likely to go along with a CT scanner being shipped to Thompson and vice-versa.

For such reasons, some favour a return to the local hospital boards of years gone by. Within NOR-MAN, at least, complaints seemed far less widespread when more localized governance was in place.

Alas, those days are gone.

Fortunately, the NDP promises that the amalgamation, in the north and elsewhere, will not mean the loss of any front-line staff, just some spare bureaucrats in administration.

As maligned as they often are, those bureaucrats, in theory, provide a closer-to-home link between patients and the health-care system. Having one set of them for all of the north will water down the voice of each resident of this vast expanse.

There is little doubt some amalgamations were in order. But the government with all four of the seats in the north has failed to appreciate the unique challenges this region faces.

Instead, a politically motivated Oswald has opted to close a controversial chapter in provincial health care, without ever giving NOR-MAN or Burntwood the full opportunity to right their own ships.

Her decision comes at the detriment of northerners and their voices in health care.

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

jonathon_naylor@hotmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2012 A12

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