When government is presented with a significant problem for which it does not have an immediate solution, it will typically announce an action plan that is wholly absent of any action. Manitoba's response to the surgical backlog is an excellent case in point.
Throughout the pandemic, Manitobans waiting for surgeries and groups such as Doctors Manitoba have been sounding the alarm about the growing backlog of surgeries created in large part by the pandemic. Together, they have pressed the Progressive Conservative government to take urgent action to address the situation.
In response, the PC government has unleashed the fury of an actionless action plan.
In March, former premier Brian Pallister announced $50 million for additional surgeries. Seven months later, only $14 million of that money has been spent and the most recent analysis from Doctors Manitoba shows the backlog of procedures is now 130,000, up from 110,000 when Pallister pledged the cash.
In March, former premier Brian Pallister announced $50 million for additional surgeries. Seven months later, only $14 million of that money has been spent.
Since then, Health Minister Audrey Gordon has offered to assemble a group of experts to advise government on the best way forward. To date, the advisory panel has no mandate, no authority and, in fact, has yet to be named.
That is simply not a responsible approach to one of the greatest health crises of our time. A crisis that is getting worse by the day.
On Wednesday, the province confirmed 158 health-care workers had accepted unpaid leave rather than comply with the vaccine or testing mandate. No breakdown by discipline was provided, but you can assume some of the affected staff will come from the surgical side of the system, which will add to delays.
In some ways, the failure to provide an urgent response to this urgent problem is consistent with this government's entire pandemic response. It also reveals foolish mistakes made in the pre-pandemic period.
For many years before the pandemic struck, the PC government starved health-care funding, rationing new investments that could have led to a much shorter surgical wait list.
For many years before the pandemic struck, the PC government starved health–care funding, rationing new investments that could have led to a much shorter surgical wait list.
Over its first three years in government, the Pallister government underspent its stated health-care budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. At the end of the 2017-18 fiscal year, the Tory government spent $42 million less than the year before, the first time in nearly 30 years that health-care spending had shrunk.
All the while, Pallister and his MLAs allowed spending on priority surgical procedures to languish — and wait times to go up. In fact, although wait times do tend to fluctuate on an annual basis, the current delays for hips, knees and cataracts are considerably longer now than in 2016 when the Tories took over.
And what did Pallister and his team do while Manitobans were crying out for more surgeries? They chose instead to indulge in hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to sales and property taxes. High-wealth individuals may find that an acceptable trade-off, but for the gross majority of Manitobans who cannot afford to go to the United States for privately funded surgery, it's a bum deal.
The worst part is that months ago, government was bombarded with good advice on how to address the backlog.
Doctors Manitoba has twice provided government with a road map for dealing with the surgery backlog. In June, it recommended the creation of an independent advisory group, increased investments in priority surgeries, regular and detailed updates on progress, and the need for government to establish a firm date to erase the backlog. It renewed those recommendations this month.
In one year, B.C. was able to cover all of the surgeries that had been delayed by the pandemic and had actually reduced its total surgical wait list to 84,000 patients, below pre–pandemic levels.
In both instances, the suggestions fell on deaf ears.
If the Tory government was determined to ignore Doctors Manitoba, at the very least it could have looked west to British Columbia, which provided a clear path to dealing with surgical backlogs.
B.C. formed an expert advisory committee on the surgical backlog in the spring of 2020, less than two months into the pandemic. It invested $250 million for more surgeries and to hire more surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, therapists and imaging technicians. It bought two new MRI machines and started running them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The results have been astounding. In one year, B.C. was able to cover all of the surgeries that had been delayed by the pandemic and had actually reduced its total surgical wait list to 84,000 patients, below pre-pandemic levels.
It's an impressive but incredibly simple strategy: more resources, spent wisely, and deployed on an urgent basis.
Pallister's departure probably did not help the situation. At a time when the Tory government needed solutions to the most pressing problems, it has been locked in a campaign to select the next leader and premier.
But even without that distraction, this is a government that has consistently tempted fate with its austere approach to funding health care. Initially, the Tories were able to get away with it because it had only made a bad situation a tiny bit worse.
The pandemic has turned worse into potentially disastrous. We can only hope the PC government realizes the magnitude of the threat before it's too late.
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.