With an early election call in the air, and tragedy swirling around his controversial plan to reorganize Winnipeg hospitals, Premier Brian Pallister appears to be on the verge of aggravating his party's Achilles heel: health care.
Fairly or unfairly, Progressive Conservatives have been seen as more competent on fiscal and economic challenges, and less competent when it comes to managing the health care system.
Given that traditional flaw in the Tory brand, it's hardly surprising that the Pallister government would struggle to build public support for its plans to close three of Winnipeg's emergency departments while redistributing many other health programs among the city's roster of hospitals. However, those struggles became even more acute the moment we learned that 63-year-old Madeliene Richard died last week at St. Boniface hospital after waiting hours in an overwhelmed ER.
Richard underwent coronary bypass surgery two weeks ago. Last Wednesday, she began to suffer complications at her Angusville home, some 350 kilometres north of Winnipeg. She was rushed to St. Boniface hospital, where her family said it took close to five hours to get her into surgery. She died during the operation.
The hospital and the WRHA have refused to discuss the case but in lieu of a formal and salient explanation, the family has linked the death to the Pallister government's hospital reorganization plan. Richard's daughter, Monica, told the Free Press she is concerned care for her mother may have been compromised because of recent decisions to close some city ERs.
"The only thing that I would want is for them to realize that we do need these emergency rooms," Monica Richard said. "You can’t just be cutting people off health care."
There is no conclusive proof anyone is being denied health care, or that this death was a consequence of the Pallister government's plan to reconfigure Winnipeg hospitals. However, there is enough circumstantial evidence to explain how and why the family would try and make the connection.
The Concordia Hospital ER was formally converted to an urgent care centre at the beginning of June. Since then, patient numbers at St. Boniface ER have been extremely high. On the same day Richard arrived at St. Boniface in post-operative distress, the hospital started turning away ER patients because of a severe bed shortage.
Any time someone dies in a hospital and there are concerns about the quality or timeliness of care, you can be sure the government of the day will face scrutiny. Unfortunately for Tories, that scrutiny is intense right now given the level of concern about the Pallister government's ER consolidation plan.
Is Richard's death directly connected to that plan, as her family suspects? We may never know for sure, and it may not matter anyway. Stories like this tend to have a remarkably long political half life. In other words, they tend to stick and resonate with voters to come.
That is particularly true if the public is predisposed to doubt your ability to manage health care.
Going back to the 1990s and the governments of Premier Gary Filmon, there has been a deeply seeded concern in this province Tories will sacrifice quality care for expenditure control. That is not an empirically fair assessment of the Filmon era, but his government did initiate a period of austerity in health care that was as controversial in its time as the hospital reorganization is now.
How do we know for sure Manitobans have less confidence in the Tories when it comes to health care? For starters, we can look at the health-care challenges faced by the NDP when it was in office and see how they affected the party's brand.
For example, over a seven-month period between July 2002 and February 2003, three Manitobans died while waiting for cardiac surgery. The government of former NDP Premier Gary Doer delivered a series of urgent measures to reduce the wait list that effectively quelled outcry about the deaths. Doer's management of the crisis was so effective, he was able to campaign in 2003 as the party best equipped to manage health care.
It didn't stop there. The willingness of Manitobans to see the NDP as the best party on health care allowed Doer and former Premier Greg Selinger to play offence rather than defence in election campaigns. Despite having their own issues to deal with, the New Democrats continued to demonize the Tories as the party that would gut health care in the 2007 and 2011 provincial elections, to great success.
Selinger tried to play the same card in 2016, but clearly voters were more concerned about the woeful state of his government than they were skeptical about Pallister's capacity to manage the health-care system.
In public comments, the premier rarely misses an opportunity to remind Manitobans about the "mess" he was left by the NDP, particularly when it comes to health care. However, despite the fact that the report on which the hospital reorganization plan is based was commissioned by the NDP, the implementation of that plan is fully and completely a Tory creation. Pallister cannot avoid the issue.
In 2016, Pallister managed to overcome the Achilles heel that dogged the Progressive Conservatives for nearly 20 years. However, if we do end up going into an early election later this summer, there is a very good chance he will learn that the Tories have been hobbled by health care once again.
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.