November 22, 2019

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Opinion

Will Manitobans choose health-care reform or retreat?

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>It’s no surprise political parties have made health care one of their top priorities in this campaign, especially with the disruption Manitobans have seen in some areas of hospital services, says columnist Tom Brodbeck.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

It’s no surprise political parties have made health care one of their top priorities in this campaign, especially with the disruption Manitobans have seen in some areas of hospital services, says columnist Tom Brodbeck.

Health-care wait times in key areas such as hip and knee surgery rose sharply during the last two years of the former NDP government in Manitoba, despite significant increases in funding.

With health care as the top issue in this provincial election campaign, voters have a decision to make: would going back to the former system, as under the NDP government, improve outcomes? Or do Manitobans take a chance on the Pallister government’s reforms to try to improve the system?

A recent Probe Research poll commissioned for the Free Press and CTV News Winnipeg found health care was the top-of-mind issue for 44 per cent of respondents. That’s well ahead of second-place "jobs/economy/cost of living" at 15 per cent.

It’s no surprise political parties have made health care one of their top priorities in this campaign, especially with the disruption Manitobans have seen in some areas of hospital services. The Pallister government two years ago launched the most ambitious changes to Manitoba’s health-care system in at least two decades. The reforms include the consolidation of acute-care hospitals in Winnipeg and a provincewide reorganization of how health-care services are delivered.

The changes so far have yielded some improvements, including shorter wait times in some areas such as MRIs. But the reforms — including converting three emergency departments to urgent care centres in Winnipeg — have also resulted in staffing shortages and other disruptions. Health officials say those are just bumps along the road and insist there will be improvements over time.

But critics say the disruptions are a direct result of "deep cuts" that have caused "chaos" within the system. All three challenging political parties, including the NDP, say they would reverse all, or most, of the Pallister government’s health-care reforms.

The question is: would that improve the system?

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), wait times in several major categories climbed rapidly under the NDP government.

For example, from 2014 to 2016, the longest wait time for nine out of 10 patients (called the 90th percentile) for hip surgery increased from 248 days to 348 days. Those wait times continued to grow after the Tories won government in 2016, although they did level off. From 2016 to 2018, the same wait time grew from 348 days to 413 days (it was 414 days in 2017).

The longest wait times for nine out of 10 patients waiting for cataract surgery increased from 205 to 289 days from 2014 to 2016. It continued to increase under the Tories to 378 days in 2018 (although it fell from 409 days in 2017).

There was similar data for knee-replacement surgery. The 90th-percentile wait time jumped from 274 to 412 days from 2014 to 2016 under the former NDP government. It increased from 412 days (2016) to 451 days (2018).

The longest wait times for nine out of 10 patients waiting for cataract surgery increased from 205 to 289 days from 2014 to 2016. It continued to increase under the Tories to 378 days in 2018 (although it fell from 409 days in 2017).

Wait times for some procedures, such as radiation therapy, CT scans and hip-fracture surgery have been relatively steady since 2014. The 90th-percentile wait time for MRIs has come down substantially from 167 days in 2014 to 119 days in 2018.

In most categories, Manitoba’s wait times are longer than the national average, according to CIHI.

Emergency-room wait times aren’t much different. According to Winnipeg Regional Health Authority data, wait times have fluctuated seasonally over the past five years. While they fell somewhat in 2017-18, they have risen again to levels similar to what they were under the NDP.

None of this has been for a lack of money. The NDP spent $5.7 billion on health care in 2013-14, which climbed to $6.2 billion in their last year in office. The Tories increased that to $6.5 billion in 2018-19.

Would undoing all the changes that have been made over the past two years improve outcomes? There’s no evidence it would. None of the research — including three recent reports on Manitoba health care — suggests it would. In addition to the further disruption it would cause, Manitobans would be going back to a system where wait times for many key procedures were rising as fast, or faster, than they are now.

Wait times are just one of many measurements used to assess the quality of a heath-care system. But they are an important metric.

The question is, do we stick with the status quo and allow wait times to continue to rise well above the national average? Or do we try to reform the system in an effort to get better results down the road?

That’s one of the key questions voters will have to answer in this election.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

Read full biography

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