Spectre of hallway medicine haunts Tories once more

It looks like déjà vu for the provincial Progressive Conservative party.

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Opinion

It looks like déjà vu for the provincial Progressive Conservative party.

One year from now, Manitobans will be some two weeks away from casting their ballot in the 2023 election (which must be on or before Oct. 3). And, like 23 years ago, the PCs’ biggest challenge will be how to overcome what their political opponents dubbed “hallway medicine.”

The reasons behind congested hospital emergency rooms are different today than they were when the Tories sought a fourth term in office in 1999. However, the outcome is the same: dozens of very sick patients lined up on gurneys in ER hallways because there are no available beds on medical wards to treat them.

Tory Premier Heather Stefanson and her inner circle have a year to find a cure to what seems like an incurable political disease.

The prognosis is bleak.

“Hallway medicine,” as the NDP called it while in Opposition in the 1990s, never really left Manitoba. It flared up in the late 1990s after the federal Liberal government slashed transfer payments to the provinces, leaving most health departments with little choice but to cut or freeze hospital budgets. Even as Canada Health Transfer amounts grew significantly in the 2000s, and hospital budgets were replenished, there were still patients in ER hallways.

Today’s ER horror stories are similar those of the late 1990s, including acutely ill patients waiting days for a medical bed. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The former NDP government (1999-2016) made excuses for it by claiming, falsely, that ERs were overcrowded because they were attracting too many low-acuity patients. A plan to open “quick care clinics” to alleviate those pressures failed because all the studies have shown low-acuity patients do not cause ER overcrowding (a shortage of staffed beds on medical wards do).

Hallway medicine continued throughout the 2000s, and Manitoba had some of the longest ER wait times in the country under the NDP.

It’s worse today, not because Ottawa slashed health-care transfers (in Manitoba, they’ve grown on average 3.8 per cent a year since 2016). It’s largely because the Tories rushed a well-meaning, but poorly-executed, hospital consolidation plan in Winnipeg that included cuts to acute care hospital budgets.

Wait times in emergency departments are now higher than they’ve been at any point since the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority began publishing such monthly data in 2014.

Amalgamating acute care hospitals from six to three reduced in-patient capacity and caused many front-line staff to quit or retire early. The situation was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. An aging population has made it worse.

Wait times in emergency departments are now higher than they’ve been at any point since the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority began publishing such monthly data in 2014. It will likely get worse over the winter.

Today’s ER horror stories are similar those of the late 1990s, including acutely ill patients waiting days for a medical bed. In the 1990s, the NDP called it “the indignity of hallway medicine,” and splashed billboards around Winnipeg featuring then-leader Gary Doer with the caption: “End hallway medicine, vote NDP.”

Gary Doer on Nov. 21, 1989 at the Concordia Hospital talking to a patient sitting in the hallway. (Dave Johnson / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The “end hallway medicine” campaign fueled a time-for-a-change momentum that proved insurmountable in 1999.

Today’s Tories face the same fate. They have plummeted in the polls, especially in Winnipeg (where provincial races are won and lost). Health care is once against the bane of their existence.

It’s not their only challenge. There are problems in education, child welfare and justice. But it’s health care where the public trust is in need of greatest repair. Nowhere is that more evident and more public than what is happening in emergency rooms today.

Like 1999, there are no quick fixes. Staff shortages are a national phenomenon; no government can add water and produce a nurse, anesthetist, doctor or physician’s assistant. Less than a year from now, when the Tories, NDP and Liberals present their campaign plans to “fix” health care, voters will be swayed by who they trust most — or least — when it comes to the stewardship of the province’s medical system.

For the Tories, trying to regain the trust they lost during consolidation and the COVID-19 pandemic seems almost insurmountable, as it was for their predecessors in 1999.

If they have a convincing plan to regain that trust, they aren’t showing it. They seem almost indifferent to the ER crisis, as if they know they can’t solve it.

It might be the final nail in their coffin when the ballots are counted a year from now.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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