Why health care has become number one issue in Nova Scotia election

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press
May 16, 2017
By Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press
HALIFAX – For Janet Glazebrook, having to beg a doctor to test her sister for hip fractures after waiting hours in a crowded emergency room helped determine her vote in Nova Scotia's May 30 election.

"It (health care) is completely compromised. There are not enough doctors," she said in recent a telephone interview.

The Halifax resident says she "had to beg" a physician at the Dartmouth General Hospital late last month to admit her sister – who has multiple sclerosis and epilepsy – for tests that would later show she'd fractured her hip in two spots and needed surgery, after she'd waited unseen in a room for almost six hours.

"I don't believe a thing the Liberals say at this point," she said, despite being told of the party's plan for 48 new beds and eight new operating rooms at Dartmouth General.

Similar stories around the province are causing some worries for the incumbent party in the province's two-week old campaign, say political observers.

David Johnson, a political scientist at Cape Breton University, said Stephen McNeil's government is paying a price for failing to keep 2013 election promises such as ensuring all citizens have access to family physicians, and for overcrowding and long wait times.

"It's one thing to say things are getting better and it's a policy priority, it's another thing to see the lived experience of people dealing with health care," he said in an interview.

The political scientist said protests and outbursts at events in the campaign's first week undermined the party's core message that it has been making tough choices but is poised to improve the system if re-elected to a second term.

When McNeil announced he'd spend $78 million over the next four years on collaborative clinics and would hire 50 more doctors a year, a frustrated 68-year-old retiree arrived at the event to vent his frustration over his wife's two-year wait for a family doctor.

More than 500 doctors and citizens rallied in North Sydney last Sunday over a wide range of health care issues in the Cape Breton area.

Just prior to the campaign, The Canadian Press reported on the story of how Kim D'Arcy waited with her 68-year-old husband for almost seven hours in a Halifax ER corridor as he lay dying from pancreatic cancer.

The Liberals say the problems are being addressed.

Though specific figures weren't unveiled, the party has vowed to demolish the venerable Centennial Building of the Victoria General hospital – where flooding has disrupted surgeries and pipes were fouled by Legionnaires disease – after renovating other health facilities in Halifax.

McNeil published an open letter to the Cape Breton doctors, repeating earlier assurances the Northside hospital wouldn't be closed and ER physician pay won't change, and promising consultation with doctors would improve.

"We've made a lot of change on how we delivered health care in the province. The vast majority of it has been received very well but we've heard and I've heard that Doctors Nova Scotia wasn't consulted enough," McNeil said during a news conference a day later.

He also defended his government's creation of a single health authority, saying it's allowing the province to invest in front-line care such as dialysis units in Glace Bay, Bridgewater, Digby, Kentville, Halifax and Dartmouth.

Still, Don Mills, the president of Corporate Research Associates, said the issue recently rated as the number one campaign topic in his firm's quarterly poll.

"It's come out of nowhere, after health care has been third for a long, long time," he said.

"You only need five or six per cent of the population to decide they're not comfortable on health care to make a difference in the election."

Jeff MacLeod, a political scientist at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, argues that for all of the passion being expressed around the health issue, it's doubtful that voters are convinced McNeil's opponents hold all the solutions.

"The policy dilemma is the province spends about $4.5 billion on it (health), almost half the budget, and the policy outcomes never seem to live up to the stated goals of the system," he said in an email.

"It is where the Liberals are most vulnerable, but the opposition parties are not capturing enough attention or the imagination of the electorate."'

Early in the campaign, Tory Leader Jamie Baillie unveiled a $2-billion infrastructure plan to target problems like the Victoria General building, but was criticized for an assumption Ottawa would make a major contribution to the project.

McNeil is calling it the Tories' "$1-billion hole."

As for the New Democrats, leader Gary Burrill faces wider criticisms from McNeil for his willingness to return to deficits to pay for his party's promised improvements to the health system, ranging from spending $120 million to hire more family doctors to an expansion of dental coverage for teenagers.

Nonetheless, as the campaign enters the mid-way point, Johnson say the health issue could still swing a number of votes in key ridings if McNeil's damage control measures don't work.

"I think there is some real vulnerability for the Liberals here," he said.

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