HALIFAX — The Tories and NDP made their pitches Wednesday to Nova Scotians weary of health-care irritants, promising to address doctor shortages and emergency room overcrowding.
Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie announced $13.5 million over four years to recruit more doctors, which he said would significantly reduce shortages in a province where as many as 100,000 people have no family doctor.
"We need more doctors now: Family doctors to get people to the front of the line and advocate for them in our system, and more specialists like surgeons to see that they get the surgeries that they need in a timely way," he said.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill, meanwhile, promised to address what he called "hallway medicine," and put an end to emergency department overcrowding if his party is elected May 30.
"Patients are being left waiting in hallways, being double bunked in single rooms, made to wait hours in the E.R. or arrive at the hospital to find their E.R. closed," said Burrill.
As he unveiled a new program for pre-schoolers, Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil said one of the health-care-system pressures has been that his government inherited Halifax facilities that were in poor condition.
"Part of the issue when we came into government was the actual state of some of our infrastructure here in Halifax which had been left without the kind of attention it required," he said.
"We've been working very hard that we provide the services in the right health care environment and that when our health care workers go to work they have the proper supports in the proper environment."
Baillie was accompanied Wednesday by Cindy Newell of Cape Sable Island, N.S., who said her husband Murray has been waiting two years to get a hip replacement.
She said after waiting a year simply to get a referral, her husband has decided to opt for surgery at a private clinic in Montreal at a cost of about $25,000, which will be paid for by an unnamed private Nova Scotia donor.
"The doctor says his hip is a mess and it needs to be done and it should have been done a long time ago," said Newell. "I want to see more money or surgeons brought in to do this."
Baillie said Newell's story illustrates what needs to be done to address wait times.
"People like Cindy and Murray don't even get to the start line of that long wait unless they have a family doctor to begin the process of referrals," he said.
He made no firm commitments on how many doctors would be hired, both family doctors and specialists.
Baillie also pledged to double the tuition relief program to $6 million to keep new family doctors in the province and said the plan would also recognize credentials for Canadians who study medicine abroad.
Last month Doctors Nova Scotia said the province would need to recruit 100 doctors a year for the next decade to deal with retirements and an aging population with increasingly complex medical needs.
In last week's proposed budget, which died when the May 30 vote was called, the Liberals promised $2.4 million in annual funding to hire an additional 50 doctors a year. They also promised $3.7 million more for additional orthopedic surgeries.
In a news release Wednesday, Burrill said emergency department overcrowding had become "unacceptable."
He pointed to a report released in March by the Nova Scotia General Employees Union entitled "Code Critical." The report tracked a rise in so-called code census incidents at Halifax's largest hospital, during which the emergency ward is declared unsafe and patients are sent to in-patient units.
The union made 15 recommendations, including the need to publicly document code census calls and treatment wait times, and to revisit policies on staffing levels when overcrowding occurs.
Burrill said the New Democrats would improve emergency care by implementing all recommendations in the union's report, while working as "active partners" with doctors, nurses, and communities to deliver specific health care needs.
He said the measures would accompany a previously announced $120-million, four-year commitment to hire more family doctors and improve primary care.
McNeil said Wednesday the Health Department has been considering the union report, but didn't commit to following its recommendations.
The Liberals used Day 4 of the election to highlight plans to provide a pre-primary program for about 750 four-year-olds. McNeil said his plan is to begin the program this fall in 30 locations, mostly in existing schools.
"Too often parents have had to make difficult choices about whether to stay in the workforce or to pay the high cost of child care," said McNeil. "Our universal pre-primary plan takes the financial burden away saving families up to $10,000 a year."
The first year of the pre-schoolers program — already announced in the budget — envisions having 25 children in each class with two early childhood educators per class.
The program will be play-based, and encourages the development of skills such as speaking, socializing and listening.
The Liberals say that once the pre-primary program is fully implemented after four years, it will cost about $49.4 million each year.
— With files from Michael Tutton in Halifax
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press