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After initially spiking a planned $300-million expansion at CancerCare Manitoba and then ordering $2.5 million to be found in savings in its 2017-18 budget, the provincial government has now called for a value-for-money audit of the organization.
On Monday, Health Minister Cameron Friesen downplayed any notion CancerCare has been a target for the government, instead saying it was long overdue for a fiscal study.
"We want the assurance that we are doing the absolute best job we can in management, administration and operations so that we can address issues like wait times for CancerCare," Friesen said.
"We have a challenge in respect of an aging population. We know that the evidence is that cancer (rates) continue to go up in our population in Manitoba. So we need greater ability to respond to that, and I think Manitobans should take comfort in the fact that we’re asking the questions."
The province issued a request for proposals Oct. 29, looking for consultants to review the "overall operational efficiency and fiscal performance of (CancerCare Manitoba) by benchmarking with similar cancer organizations in Canada."
The RFP also calls for examination of "the effectiveness of (CancerCare Manitoba's) management approach/processes, fiscal decision-making and the Board governance oversight of the (CancerCare) operations and delivery of clinical services," to begin in January 2019.
CancerCare's public affairs office would not comment on the pending review Monday, referring questions to the health minister's office.
However, the leader of the official opposition and the union representing about 300 CancerCare staff, said the review seems to set the table for health-care cuts.
"We don’t see how a proposal to review CancerCare management, how this could possibly improve health care. We see this as the government trying to justify health-care cuts without improving health-care outcomes," said Robyn Powell, CUPE's national servicing representative.
Powell said the union has been pressuring CancerCare to hire more employees for at least five years since staffing ratios at the facility have remained at similar levels while cancer patient numbers have soared.
She said a CancerCare fiscal review will probably mean "looking at a reduction in staff to an already-stressed CancerCare system."
NDP Leader Wab Kinew, who raised the issue in question period Monday, said he was concerned about the language used in the RFP.
"So first off, it’s all about cost and money, but there’s no language about the quality of care. So that’s a big red flag for me. Also, there’s in this RFP the insistence that this report will stay confidential after the fact. There’s another red flag for me," Kinew said.
When questioned about the confidentiality of the report by reporters, Friesen wouldn't commit to releasing the results publicly.
Kinew — as well as Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont — took issue with government looking to hire another outside consultant to conduct another health-care review, after KPMG and Nova Scotia-based health-care consultant Dr. David Peachey trod similar territory of late, leading to the overhaul of emergency-care access in city hospitals.
"I have a problem with putting everything out to consultants, because they don’t have any skin in the game," Lamont said.
"...We also have a government full of people who are supposed to be paid to do this stuff. So why are we paying extra to outside consultants? I don’t understand. Doesn’t anyone who works for the PCs do anything?"
A government spokesperson wouldn't estimate how much the CancerCare review will cost, noting the amount will be subject to the tendering process. The closing date for bids is Nov. 16.
In February 2017 the province axed plans for a $300-million CancerCare building project, asking instead that the agency scale back the project's scope. A week later, CancerCare was directed to find the $2.5 million in additional savings.
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.