Commitment to recruiting, retaining desperately needed doctors not what it should be

Manitoba’s Tory government not only cut the budget for a doctor recruitment program multiple times since taking office in 2016 — and froze it again in this week’s provincial budget — it has underspent the fund every year.

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Manitoba’s Tory government not only cut the budget for a doctor recruitment program multiple times since taking office in 2016 — and froze it again in this week’s provincial budget — it has underspent the fund every year.

It may be one of the reasons Manitoba is still among the provinces with the lowest number of physicians per capita.

The province’s physician recruitment and retention fund provides resources for a wide range of initiatives to help train and keep doctors in Manitoba, including tuition rebates and incentives to practise in rural areas. The Tories chopped the budget for the fund in 2017, from $31.5 million to $27.2 million. Not only that, they underspent the program that year, using up only $23.6 million of the allotted amount.

The program was cut again the following year to $25.7 million, where it has largely remained (it was frozen in this year’s budget at $25.6 million, the same level as last year).

Since 2016, the Tories have underspent the recruitment and retention fund every year, including $2.6 million in 2021-22. All told, government left nearly $13 million on the table between 2016 and 2022.

Meanwhile, the Stefanson government claims it’s doing everything possible to retain and recruit physicians, as the province struggles with one of the worst physician shortages experienced in years. Manitoba has the third-lowest per capita doctors in Canada and the lowest per capita family physicians.

Doctors Manitoba, which represents more than 4,000 physicians across the province, was shocked to find out the Tories froze funding for the program again in the 2023 budget. The organization, which has been working closely with government on physician recruitment in recent months, said it was given no explanation for the decision.

The Tories are happy to invite Doctors Manitoba to news conferences when it suits their political needs. But they ignore the group when they cut or freeze a critical recruitment and retention program.

It’s not like the province doesn’t have the money to add more resources to the program. Manitoba received hundreds of millions of new health-care dollars from the federal government this year, some of which is supposed to help the province recruit and retain doctors. The Tories have used some of those resources to increase overall health-care funding (a record amount, actually), but some has gone to tax cuts.


Health Minister Audrey Gordon

When asked about it in question period Thursday, Health Minister Audrey Gordon didn’t directly answer the question. She instead accused Opposition NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara of putting false information on the record. The spending estimates for the recruitment and retention fund are in the budget; it wasn’t false information.

Gordon’s non-answer wasn’t a surprise. The minister, appointed to the portfolio by former premier Brian Pallister in 2021 and kept on (surprisingly) by Premier Heather Stefanson, has a poor grasp of her portfolio. Effective cabinet ministers make it their business to know what’s going on in their departments, especially when it comes to priority issues such as the doctor shortage. They get briefed daily by senior officials, read their briefing material, give direction and demand results. Gordon is not one of those ministers.

Given the importance of physician recruitment in this province, it’s mind-boggling more resources have not been allocated to a program designed specifically to train and retain doctors. It’s even more shocking the fund has been underspent every year.

Manitoba’s physician shortage not only affects emergency-room wait times and hospital overcrowding, it causes upstream problems that often lead to hospitalizations that could have been avoided. When people don’t have access to timely primary care, including family doctors, medical conditions often deteriorate. That can lead to further complications, which sometimes result in hospitalization, especially among the elderly. Investing in prevention, including primary care, is one of the most important ways to improve health-care outcomes.

The recruitment fund isn’t the only tool to retain and boost physician numbers. The province has taken other steps, such as increasing medical-school spots. But given the severe shortage, one would think the province would do everything in its power to address the problem. It isn’t.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck

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

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