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Health Care Remains Front of Mind Prior to Election

The Stephanson government has announced a six-year rebuild of the Health Sciences Centre (HSC) adult towers and improvements of the Bannatyne campus costing $1.5 billion. This will be the largest investment in health care in Manitoba’s history. 

“Healing health care means putting patients first and ensuring quality health care and services are there when Manitobans need it most,” Premier Heather Stefanson said at the announcement. 

“This $1.5 billion project will rebuild the core of what today is HSC Winnipeg. HSC is Manitoba’s hospital, home to specialized services that Manitoba families rely on. We are also making a significant investment in the education of our provinces’ future health care providers, helping address the health care staffing needs of tomorrow.” 

The new building is planned to be ten storeys tall. It will add approximately 240 new patient rooms, create new campus spaces, expand the adult emergency department and allow for space to increase critical care units if needed. $72 million will be used in the first stage of construction to expand the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences. 

“When you improve HSC Winnipeg, you are improving a foundational piece of our health care system,” Health Minister Audrey Gordon explained. 

“We are fighting to heal health care, and I want to commend the HSC Foundation for the initiative it has taken to ensure we can get started today.” 

John Lyon, CEO of the HSC Foundation, was equally excited about the new project. 

“What you are hearing about today is the result of a true team effort,” Lyon said. “One that will help transform HSC for the future, providing a better experience for patients, the loved ones that support them, and those who care for them and in doing so, providing a major improvement to the hospital that is the cornerstone of Manitoba’s health care system.” 

The announcement came two days before a blackout on government funding announcements. The provincial blackout law is meant to prevent the reigning government from swaying voters with promises within 60 days of an election. Additionally, the rule prevents the governing party from using taxpayer funds to assuage voters. 

 Healing Health Care… Again 

The Progressive Conservatives have held a majority government since 2016 and have seen a downhill slide in opinion polls since the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite promises from the Stephanson government pertaining to investing in health care, Manitobans don’t have to think hard to recall countless cuts the Conservatives made to health care under the leadership of Brian Pallister.  

In February 2017, the Progressive Conservatives cancelled more than $1 billion in health care infrastructure projects, including $300 million for a new facility for CancerCare Manitoba. By March of the same year, then Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen announced budget cuts for Regional Health Authorities, after which the WRHA budget was cut by $83 million, 5 per cent less than the prior fiscal year. The PC government also announced 15 per cent of WRHA management jobs were to be cut. These cuts led to nearly 300 health care jobs being eliminated. 

April of 2017 saw the Manitoba PC’s announced the closure of three of Winnipeg’s six emergency rooms, downgrading them to urgent care centres. In the same month, the PC government cancelled a program worth $4.2 million aimed at bringing more doctors to rural Manitoba, decreasing access to adequate health care for rural Manitobans. 

Closures of clinics and centres continued throughout the summer of 2017 while health care workers lost jobs rapidly, including 500 nurses who were notified their positions had been deleted. At the time, details of these drastic changes could be found on a WRHA website called Healing Our Health Care System. The site no longer exists. 

By 2019, emergency room wait times were increasing while the budget continued to be cut, losing an additional 2 per cent in 2019. By 2021, hospitals in Manitoba were overwhelmed, and patients were being flown out of the province to receive care for COVID-19. 

Then premier Brian Pallister defended his decisions, saying his government was “trying to improve a system that is the worst in Canada.” 

The Days Since COVID 

According to the WRHA, the median ER wait time in June 2023 was 2.87 hours. Median wait times since 2016 peaked in July 2022 at a median wait time of 3.23 hours. Wait times have continued to increase since the pandemic. 

From 2014 to 2020, the highest median wait time in a month was 2.33 hours. The average peak wait time per month between 2014 and 2020 was 2.19 hours. Since January 2020, the average peak wait time per month is 2.68 hours. The WRHA reported the highest 10 per cent of wait times in June of this year, averaging 7.37 hours. 

According to Shared Health, approximately 12.5 per cent of emergency room and urgent care patients in Winnipeg left without receiving treatment of any kind in 2022. This marked a five-year high rate of patients leaving emergency departments without care and an increase of 4 per cent from 2021. The rate of untreated patients was highest at the Health Sciences Centre, where 26.5 per cent of patients left the facility without first receiving care in 2022, a 6 per cent rise from 2021. 

Among the immediate promises the PC government looks to act on is adding a minor-injury clinic at the HSC. The clinic is expected to be able to treat 22,000 patients each year. The clinic’s goal will be to care for patients with lesser injuries to alleviate pressure from our currently overcrowded emergency rooms. The clinic is expected to be open 12 hours a day. 

“We expect the clinic to have a positive impact on our emergency department wait times and to significantly reduce the number of patients who choose to leave the hospital prior to receiving care,” Chief Medical Officer at HSC Dr. Manon Pelletier said at a news conference in March. 

As for what the health care system needs, Doctors Manitoba shared a “Prescription for improving Health Care” in an article posted last week. Mentioned within are seven points which would improve the present situation in Manitoba.  

Major points include the recruitment of 650 more health care providers. The list also calls for 400 new doctors over the next five years in order to match the national average of doctors per 100,000 residents. The list also suggests increases in team-based care to “improve access and quality in health care” and expand hospital capacity. 

Dr. Michael Boroditsky, president of Doctors Manitoba, is quoted saying, “Our plan responds to the concerns physicians hear every day from our patients. We are offering practical advice to all political parties in advance of the next provincial election.” 

What Manitobans can do is learn to navigate the health care system. Ensure you are going to the health care provider best suited to your situation’s needs. Determining whether to visit a clinic, urgent care, or emergency room is crucial to reducing the time you wait to receive treatment. Check the link here for help assessing which clinic is right per situation. 

To see the full changes the Progressive Conservative government made to Manitoba health care since September 2016, check the Manitoba Health Coalition.

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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