Provincial funding of ambulance and paramedic services in Winnipeg has grown on paper, but the bolstered budget lines haven’t kept up with calls for service on the ground, critics say.
A tweet by Health Minister Cameron Friesen last week stated the province had increased funding for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service by 84 per cent since 2015 — contrary to claims by City of Winnipeg officials that spending for the lifesaving service has been stagnant since 2016.
In the Feb. 6 post, Friesen said the frozen funding claims are baseless, and the province provided 15 new replacement ambulances to the WFPS in 2019.
On Tuesday, the minister’s press secretary, Gord Leclerc, clarified to the Free Press the 84 per cent funding increase includes $12.8 million to replace lost revenue when the provincial government reduced ambulance fees by 50 per cent last year.
"Our government increased funding to the WFPS by 22 per cent, and with the additional $12.8 million, reinvested from lower ambulance fees, increased funding to 84 per cent — that’s far greater than any other increase within the system," Friesen said in a written statement.
The city is contracted by provincial agency Shared Health to provide paramedic and ambulance services to residents — though the two entities do not have a current service agreement. The city also bills the province to recover costs incurred while providing ambulance services, about a quarter of the total expense.
Baseline funding the WFPS received from the province has grown incrementally each year since 2015, for a total of $4.5 million or 22 per cent, to cover increases in salaries and operating costs.
However, the last time the WFPS received money for additional resources, including ambulance units and staff was in 2011, a city spokesperson said.
Opposition health critic and NDP MLA Uzoma Asagwara called the minister’s tweet misleading and an attempt to distract from Winnipeg emergency rooms closures.
"We’ve heard directly from first responders that the system is stretched to breaking point — there aren’t enough ambulances or paramedics to get patients the emergency care they need, and hospitals are struggling to care for those patients once they arrive," Asagwara said.
Since 2015, demand for ambulance and paramedic service has risen by 31 per cent, WFPS data shows, while ambulance response times have crept past national standards.
Last year, paramedics responded to 73,420 medical incidents, and in total, the WFPS received 89,311 medical calls. The number of sick days city paramedics and firefighters are taking has also risen — about 13 per cent since 2016 — at 9,399.
Currently, the average response time for a transport ambulance in Winnipeg is 13 minutes, while the national standard is less than nine minutes. On average, the service is also in degraded mode — when fewer than seven of the 28 ambulances the WFPS operates are available — for about 12 hours a day.
Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, which includes Paramedics of Winnipeg Local 911, said the statistics WFPS is reporting are unacceptable.
"We are urging the City of Winnipeg to sit down with the province to review how the WFPS is funded, how much duplication of services is occurring, and how much of that investment is actually going to ambulance-based services," Gawronsky said.
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"If the government truly has increased the funding for the WFPS in the manner in which the minister has said, we shouldn’t be in this situation."
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said emergency medical service levels are dictated by the provincial government, and called for increased urgency in getting a contract with Shared Health. He also suggested the city would be willing to step back from being the EMS provider.
"There certainly hasn’t been direction to provide less service or more service; that is the discretion of the provincial government, Shared Health, and the minister of health, and we respect the fact that’s within their authority," Bowman said.
"Given the importance of ambulance service, we need a contract in place," he said. "When you’re talking life and death, this is something that there should be clarity on."