It is now, just as it has always been, the NDP’s go-to issue.

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This article was published 17/3/2016 (2043 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

It is now, just as it has always been, the NDP’s go-to issue.

On Thursday, the NDP campaign focused on health care, with a commitment to open eight new QuickCare clinics with longer hours. This is no random announcement.

The NDP believes it has greater credibility on health care than any other campaign issue. That is not to say the NDP’s performance on health has been flawless; outcomes in many areas are still woeful. But there has been some progress in boosting capacity and quality of services. Enough that when voters are asked which party is best suited to manage health care, the NDP typically ranks at the top of the pack.

It certainly helps the NDP the public is more concerned about the future of the health-care system than it has been in almost 20 years. The provinces are staring down a change in the formula used to calculate federal transfers for health care that could dramatically reduce annual increases. As well, several other provinces, including Ontario and Quebec, have, in a bid to get their budgets back into balance, cut back drastically on health-care spending.

In Ontario, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne has frozen hospitals’ base budgets for nearly four years, cut doctors’ fees and kept overall health spending below inflation. In the current budget year, which ends March 31, Ontario kept the spending increase in health to a remarkable 1.6 per cent, with a promise it will average no more than 1.8 per cent over the next three years.

Ontario’s austerity is part of a plan to balance its budget by 2018, a remarkable feat when you consider the size of its annual deficit. However, to many within the health-care system, those tiny budget increases work out to be the same as a cut in funding that is threatening the integrity of the whole system.

Ontario physicians have mounted a stinging ad campaign suggesting the fee cuts will significantly reduce both the number of doctors in the province and the total number of hours they are available. The Ontario Nurses Association revealed in January underfunded hospitals in that province were forced to cut more than 700 nursing positions last year, with more coming this year. Those are both developments that will most definitely weaken the overall delivery of health care.

Which brings us back to the Manitoba election, where we already have a stark contrast between the fiscal plans of the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives. Given health care consumes more than 40 cents of every dollar spent by government, it is impossible to talk about reducing overall government spending without calculating the impact on health care.

The NDP has made it clear it will not invoke any form of austerity in core service areas. On Thursday, NDP Leader Greg Selinger said he would like to hold annual spending increases in health care to between four and five per cent. That is certainly in line with what many provinces spend each year to sustain a system that continues to be under siege from an aging and growing population.

The problem for Selinger is his policy makes it virtually impossible to balance the budget. Selinger remains optimistic there will come a day when economic growth, and the accompanying government revenues, will allow him to increase health-care spending by up to five per cent a year and still eliminate the deficit. However, it’s hard to see that happening any time soon.

In the other corner, you have Tory Leader Brian Pallister and his "one per cent solution," a plan to reduce the increase in annual expenditures by about one per cent to help slowly but surely bring the budget back to balance. Pallister has said that does not mean every department would have to slow spending by one per cent, only that he will be looking to achieve the equivalent in reduced spending increases across all of government.

The fuzziness of his one per cent plan has allowed the NDP all kinds of opportunities to accuse him of getting ready to gut core services.

Pallister has not been explicit about the impact of this policy on health care, but using the one per cent formula, there would still be an impact. On a $5.7-billion health budget from this year, a four per cent hike in spending next year would mean an increase of $228 million; a three per cent increase would work out to $171 million.

There is a very real possibility Pallister could sell voters on the idea a $171-million funding increase for health care — even if it is less than what the NDP would have provided — is still reasonable. Unfortunately for the Tories, Pallister is doing a horrible job explaining it to voters.

Case in point: the PC campaign was asked directly Thursday to comment on whether a Pallister government would adopt the same approach Wynne is using in Ontario, an approach that evokes images of disgruntled physicians fleeing to Texas and nurses being laid off. Neither Pallister, not a party spokesperson, would directly answer the question. Pallister has a health-care announcement scheduled for today, at which he will have an opportunity to clarify his stance and defuse the NDP attack.

For now, however, the NDP will continue to hammer away at health care. At least until Pallister and the Tories come out of their bubble and deal more directly with the issue at hand.

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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