Opinion

From the dizzying array of overly ambitious, sparsely detailed pledges contained in the first throne speech delivered by Premier Heather Stefanson's government, comes a truly seismic vow.

From the dizzying array of overly ambitious, sparsely detailed pledges contained in the first throne speech delivered by Premier Heather Stefanson's government, comes a truly seismic vow.

Stefanson is going to cure the health-care system.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson applauds as Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon reads the speech from the throne. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson applauds as Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon reads the speech from the throne. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

Now, politicians are always making gratuitous promises in throne speeches that are more aspirational than practical. Tuesday's speech was no different.

In the 11-page speech, Stefanson promises to seek reconciliation with Indigenous people, provide greater support to the victims of family violence, improving K-12 public education, creating more post-secondary opportunities to Indigenous and new Canadian students, promote clean energy options for Manitobans, preserving "nature and heritage spaces," and promoting tourism and boosting the arts and culture sector.

Notably absent was any detailed reference to the budget deficit — now expected to top $2 billion — or changes to fiscal policy.

However, it is health care where Stefanson was at her most aspirational.

The most positive observation you can make of the throne speech as it relates to health care is it seems to acknowledge the broad range of issues that require attention.

Along with a task force on the backlogs afflicting surgeries and diagnostic tests, the speech offers intriguing pledges to "remove barriers" that delay medical care, "improving access" to mental health and addictions services, "addressing" the nursing shortage, and a new seniors strategy to allow "aging Manitobans... to stay safe in their own homes, close to family and their personal support systems, for as long as they choose."

Taken together, these pledges add up to nothing less than a total overhaul of the health-care system as we know it.

How she will do that remains to be seen, but Stefanson should proceed very cautiously; former premier Brian Pallister was a master of over-promising and under-delivering on health care, and it has contributed mightily to an erosion of support for the PC party.

Stefanson should proceed cautiously; former premier Brian Pallister was a master of over-promising and under-delivering on health care. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

Stefanson should proceed cautiously; former premier Brian Pallister was a master of over-promising and under-delivering on health care. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

Pallister did affect a lot of change, including a reorganization of the Winnipeg hospital system that involved closing under-resourced emergency rooms. At the same time, however, he was squeezing the budgets of regional health authorities, culling the management ranks in the system and strangling budgets for elective procedures and diagnostic tests.

The whole time, Pallister promised he was making the system more effective and responsive while crippling an already struggling system.

Stefanson inherits a health-care system seriously mismanaged and starved of resources before the pandemic hit. Now, with a fourth wave of COVID-19 washing over the province, any attempt to improve it will collide head-on into the pressing immediate need for more resources to deal with the fallout of the pandemic.

Therein lies the great irony of the health-care system as it exists today: at a moment when we most need the system to be creative, innovative and bold in seeking solutions, it is least likely to do any of those things.

Stefanson inherits a health–care system seriously mismanaged and starved of resources before the pandemic hit.

The Progressive Conservative government has been warned by health-care professionals throughout the pandemic to adopt bold measures to address the backlog in surgeries. In June, Doctors Manitoba proposed a three-prong strategy to address the backlog: strike a task force with the authority and resources to make immediate changes; publicly announce a date by which the backlog would be erased; and provide regular updates on progress.

The then-Pallister government did none of those things and the backlog in surgeries has gone from 110,000 to 136,000 procedures. That's a 24-per-cent increase in just five months and damning evidence of the Tory government's incompetence on the health-care file.

To date, Stefanson's response has been a vague promise to strike an advisory group, ignoring the fact many really good ideas are well within the grasp of government.

To date, Stefanson's response has been a vague promise to strike an advisory group. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

To date, Stefanson's response has been a vague promise to strike an advisory group. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

When Shared Health was first created, there were promises peer review committees would vet requests from doctors for MRIs and other diagnostic scans to weed out unnecessary procedures. None of that has happened, but it could be done now to help alleviate the crushing backlog of diagnostic scans.

Just as the province could be moving many minor surgical procedures into community health-care facilities to free up staff and resources at hospitals.

Doctors Manitoba has asked to move procedures such as endoscopies (digestive tract), cystoscopies (urinary tract), hysteroscopies (uterus) and breast biopsies out of hospitals and into doctor's offices. Although Manitoba would have to pay a bit more to doctors so they could afford the additional equipment and staffing required, the overall cost would be much lower and hospitals would have more time for more complex surgeries.

To date, there has been no response from government on this idea.

The Tory government's pursuit of cost-cutting ahead of innovation set the table for the current backlog problem. Stefanson has pledged to take action, and soon, to address these pressing needs.

Which means, we'll know shortly whether the promises contained in her first throne speech were political poetry or a true action plan.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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