NDP leader unhappy with state of health care

PORT HAWKESBURY: The leader of Nova Scotia’s New Democrats was in Cape Breton last week to take the governing Liberals to task for their handling of health care.

After the end of the fall sitting of the Nova Scotia Legislature and a pair of health care rallies in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM), Gary Burrill stopped at The Reporter’s office on October 15.

As a result of the sudden closure of hospitals in the CBRM, Burrill is worried about the fates of other facilities.

“There are rallies taking place all over the province in communities that have community hospitals because people are very concerned that what happened to New Waterford and North Sydney could happen to them,” Burrill said. “This was done entirely without warning.”

Burrill said like the hospitals that were closed, other facilities across the province have dealt with staffing shortages, emergency department closures, and aging infrastructure. Closing the CBRM hospitals with no consultation has many people on edge, he said.

The NDP leader reasoned that the type of care offered at community hospitals allows for improved patient outcomes since they do more extended care for chronic illnesses, palliative care and alternate levels of care.

“If those patients are in a hospital where their family and their friends can come to see them every day or every second day because it’s no big deal, the outcomes are better,” he said. “Even the outcomes are better when people are in a place and they know who you are.”

The NDP leader is also unhappy with the government’s decision to pursue a public-private partnership (P3) for the redevelopment of the QEII Hospital in Halifax. Burrill said P3 agreements end up being very expensive for taxpayers.

“This is much more expensive and it’s not hard to understand why,” he noted. “The private company is handling the capital. Well there’s no private hospital development consortium that can borrow money as cheap as the government can. So it’s off the government’s books but they’re actually paying more for the money than the government would and the government has to cover it.”

Burrill said it is unfortunate the government cannot learn from past mistakes considering it just spent $228 million to buy back 39 P3 schools after the end of their 20-year deal with private developers.

Another issue that arose this fall in the legislature surrounded long-term care, more specifically what Burrill termed a “crisis” in nursing home funding. Burrill said the main culprit lies in the governing Liberal’s decision to take $5 million out of the budgets of nursing homes over the last two years.

“At the time we said this was a major mistake,” the NDP leader recalled. “We understand that the government thinks it’s extraordinarily important to generate a budget surplus but you don’t generate a budget surplus by leaving nursing homes and nursing home residents short… similarly you don’t generate it by not having enough nursing home beds in the province.”

As an example, Burrill pointed to the reductions in hours for Continuing Care Assistants at the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home in Antigonish last year due to budget restrictions.

Burrill said over 20 per cent of all hospital beds in Nova Scotia are currently being occupied by people who are not hospital patients, cannot continue to live alone, and are in a nursing home category, but there are no spaces in nursing homes for them.

“We’re in this very difficult situation where it costs so much more to look after someone in a hospital than it does in a nursing home, like four or five times per day,” Burrill stated, noting that since the Liberals have been in power, they have not added one single bed to nursing homes.

The NDP leader said another important trend which is having a negative impact on nursing homes is that long-term care patients today are older, more frail and need more support. He said Nova Scotia’s formula for calculating the number of care workers for the number of patients is decades old and inadequate.

“People are home longer because there’s more home care and we’re home longer because we’re living longer,” he pointed out. “People in general are often not in nursing homes as long as they used to be because they’re coming into nursing homes closer to the close of their lives.”

To alleviate the strain, the NDP introduced the Care and Dignity Act during the fall session to prescribe a legislated number of Continuing Care Assistants, Licensed Practical Nurses and Registered Nurses, according to numbers provided by the Nova Scotia Nurses Union.

“Our legislation is simply to put in law that the number of people on the floor is adequate to provide the care that’s needed on the floor,” he explained.

Burrill added problems run so deep and are so inter-connected that every aspect of the health care system has been compromised.

“It’s a big problem, it’s solvable with government investment and they need to get off their hands,” he added.