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This article was published 30/1/2019 (289 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Tory government and physicians responsible for delivering critical air ambulance services are locked in a bitter battle over the province’s proposal to privatize Lifeflight, jeopardizing the service for Manitobans in rural and northern areas.
Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler seemed poised for another round Friday, when he penned a 647-word column about "building a better, safer air ambulance service for northern Manitoba," and sent it to local print media outlets for publication.
In the op-ed, Schuler defended the province’s decision to issue a request for proposal last year, seeking out bids to privatize government air services, including Lifeflight.
"In short, we’re attempting to build a better, safer service for patients that delivers more for taxpayers’ hard-earned money. If the private sector can’t provide an option that improves upon the current model, we won’t move forward," he wrote.
A government press secretary declined multiple requests to interview the minister about the column, noting "the op-ed speaks for itself."
'Physicians do not wish to play partisan games. They care about saving lives'— Doctors Manitoba president Dr. Shannon Prud'homme
Schuler also wrote Lifeflight air ambulance’s leadership "continues to issue new conditions and threatens to withhold services."
"We have met with these physicians a number of times and we’ve addressed their key issues, hiring two new pilots and accelerating scheduled maintenance of one of the province’s jets as a demonstration of our intent to keep the program strong while the RFP process continues into the spring," he said.
The PC caucus published Schuler’s letter on its website Tuesday, the same day as the Winnipeg Sun.
The Free Press did not use the column. As a general rule, the newspaper does not publish opinion pieces from elected officials, though occasional exceptions are made, perspectives editor Brad Oswald said.
In a three-page letter addressed Tuesday to Schuler, Doctors Manitoba president Dr. Shannon Prud’homme, who represents the 16 Lifeflight physicians, addressed the minister’s comments. She said two new Lifeflight pilots have not been hired yet, nor has the aircraft in question been sent for repairs.
"I wish to make it clear that no physician has withheld service or taken job action," Prud’homme wrote in her letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Free Press.
"The reality is that the Lifeflight program lacks critical resources regardless of physician availability. For example, we understand almost 30 shifts in February do not have a pilot. Trying to fill a schedule in such an uncertain environment beyond a few days when it is riddled with gaps in pilot and plane availability is concerning."
Prud’homme outlined multiple safety concerns reported by the air ambulance crew, and criticized both Schuler and Health Minister Cameron Friesen, who has also handled the Lifeflight file.
"The lack of pilots to fly the Citation jet, the unsafe and ill-equipped backup, basic carrier, the uncertainty surrounding the Lifeflight’s future and now two government ministers impugning physicians, have all combined to place a measurable chill on the ability to retain and recruit physicians and other professionals to Lifeflight," she wrote.
"Physicians do not wish to play partisan games. They care about saving lives."
In his column, Schuler also alleged the provincial NDP, "the same party who oversaw the initial rise in Lifeflight’s use of private carriers in the first place," was "fearmongering about safety issues, with help from their public-sector unions."
Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew fired back Tuesday.
"This poorly written letter is just a messaging exercise because the government is not listening to the experts, who are doctors, in this case. They know what’s best and they’re telling this government pretty clearly what needs to happen," he said in an interview.
"We’d take it a step further and just say that the government should back off entirely from the RFP process. Government shouldn’t privatize air ambulances."
On Monday, Friesen fielded questions about why the RFP for Lifeflight has been dragging on since March.
In December, the government made a decision about its wildfire-suppression services, which were part of the same RFP. It privatized the provincial water bombers through a contract with Babcock Canada.
"This is complex work and that means that even after we have received all bids that are coming in, that adjudication process is very considerable because these are some big numbers and we have to make sure we get the numbers right," Friesen said.
"But when that process is finished, then we will have updates from Manitobans about where we go from here."
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.