Nova Scotia's New Democrats and Tories are vowing to make changes to the province's ambulance system if they're elected, but the two parties disagree on where change is most needed.
The NDP said it would eliminate all ambulance fees in Nova Scotia — a pitch made Monday morning with the help of Danica Pettipas, a Dartmouth woman facing about $300 in ambulance fees that she said pose a major burden on her family.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill and Claudia Chender, the NDP candidate for Dartmouth South, made the announcement outside Pettipas's home. Pettipas said she tested positive for COVID-19 near the end of April and quickly developed symptoms that included an elevated heart rate.
Doctors advised her to call 911.
Over the course of the next month, Pettipas would take an ambulance three more times, always on the advice of physicians. Two of the trips were in April and two trips were in May. The fees were waived for the latter two trips as part of the Liberal government's temporary change to ambulance fee policies during the third wave of COVID-19.
"They're saying people are covered May 1 and on for COVID, but the third wave didn't start in May, it started in April," said Pettipas. "So why should I have to pay this money? It's just not right."
Pettipas is still dealing with complications from her illness and expects to be off work until the fall. She was working part time in retail and said her husband is also a retail worker.
"It's a big chunk of money when we're trying to make ends meet," she said of the bills.
An ambulance ride for a Nova Scotia resident costs $146.55 and goes up for non-Nova Scotians and up again for non-Canadians.
Nova Scotia has a subsidy program for people with low incomes who have ambulance bills, but Pettipas said she does not think that's the answer.
According to the NDP, ambulance fees for 2020 amounted to more than $14 million. More than $4 million was written off as uncollectible or waived through the low-income subsidy program, meaning the final amount of money that came in from ambulance fees was about $10 million.
Burrill said he would reverse $70 million worth of a corporate tax credit introduced by the Liberals in their 2020 budget to make up for the lost ambulance revenue.
Fees not the problem, PCs say
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston said he doesn't believe removing ambulance fees would fix what he described as a health-care crisis in Nova Scotia.
At a news conference Monday morning, Houston said a PC government would focus on long wait times for ambulances and emergency medical care. He said his priorities would be improving access to primary care and long-term care to take the pressure off emergency departments.
Houston said eliminating fees could have "unintended consequences."
"If it becomes cheaper to get an ambulance than to pay for parking at a hospital, what impact would that have on call volumes?" he said.
Liberal Leader Iain Rankin also rejected the NDP pitch and highlighted the existing subsidy program for low-income Nova Scotians.
"That's what we're going to continue to do, is waive [ambulance fees] for people that need it," Rankin told reporters at a campaign event.
Houston said he's basing his priorities for emergency medicine on the complaints of paramedics. He was joined Monday by Colton LeBlanc, the PC candidate for Argyle and a former paramedic, and Michael Nickerson, business agent for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727 representing paramedics.
Leblanc said burnout is prevalent among paramedics and the system needs reform.
"It's not a quick fix and it's not an easy fix," he said.
Nickerson said he's willing to work with any party that commits to improving the ambulance system.
"We're nearing, if not already past, the point of disaster," Nickerson said.
He said in the 24 hours leading up to the PC news conference, his union received reports of more than a dozen instances across the provinces where no ambulances were available to take calls — a situation known as code critical.
The province released a report on the ambulance system earlier this year that found paramedics and their ambulances are spending too much time in non-productive, non-emergency activities. The report's authors made 68 recommendations for change, 64 of which are underway or completed.
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