Nova Scotia to unveil balanced budget amid calls for more health spending

Nova Scotia to unveil balanced budget amid calls for more health spending

HALIFAX — Robbie Weatherbee is watching Tuesday's budget in Nova Scotia as someone deeply troubled by the state of the province's mental health system.

With the Liberal government poised to bring in a post-election budget that's widely expected to balance the books for the third year in a row, the 57-year-old is among those who say the price in deteriorated social services has been high.

As the province has turned around from an era of deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars, critics say hospitals and front-line care that consume four of 10 taxpayers dollars haven't kept up with demand.

During a Monday news conference, Weatherbee said her future son-in-law committed suicide after receiving inadequate services, and argues improved standards and funding are urgently needed to avoid unnecessary deaths.

Fighting back tears, she said her daughter's fiance needed rapid treatment for his crisis when he checked in to hospital in New Glasgow in December 2016.

"He was put on a waiting list for group therapy, just what a suicidal person needs, given a prescription for an anti-depressant that could increase suicidal thoughts and then sent home," she told reporters at a gathering organized by the Progressive Conservatives.

A spokeswoman for the Nova Scotia Health Authority said it cannot comment on individual cases, adding the public "needs to be assured the health authority is designing a responsive, accessible, effective public system, steeped in evidence and easy to navigate..."

Weatherbee's was among the voices Monday calling upon Premier Stephen McNeil's government to make the troubles of the province's health care system its budget focus.

The party was re-elected with a slim majority last May, in a campaign that saw the Tories and the NDP declare a crisis had erupted following the merger of nine health authorities into a single administrative unit.

Karla MacFarlane, the interim leader of the Tories, said in an interview her party is looking for a clear plan to remedy waiting lists for mental health in the budget.

"I would say we're closer to the $100 million (in added dollars) if you look at the need to recruit doctors, and we have a huge issue of dialysis care. People are travelling for hours for dialysis and they have nowhere to stay," she said.

Meanwhile, the New Democrats and the Nova Scotia General and Government Employees Union have been issuing regular news releases updating the number of ambulances languishing outside overcrowded emergency wards.

The Liberals seemed to make a pre-emptive move on the health file Monday, announcing family doctors will get a pay boost as a result of nearly $40 million in funding — about $18 million of which was already announced last week as part of a $240 million end-of-year spending spree.

This includes a $150 bonus for every new patient they take on who was previously without a doctor.

The provincial government notes that health is already consuming 40 per cent of the budget, and that mental health's $281-million budget went up $7.4 million in the last budget.

Erin Crandall, an assistant professor in the politics department at Acadia University, said in an interview the opposition parties may be vying to establish themselves as the alternative to the Liberal party on the health care issue.

"They could see it as a political opportunity to distinguish themselves from the governing Liberals," she said.

Crandall notes that the Liberals have tended to campaign and hold themselves out as a party of fiscal restraint, as they have become the first government in a decade to achieve back-to-back balanced budgets.

In the last update, Finance Minister Karen Casey projected a $28.9-million surplus for 2017-2018, about $7.6 million higher than forecasted in September when she presented a revised budget initially tabled ahead of last spring's election.

Some of that has been achieved through tough labour tactics with public sector unions.

Those unions and thousands of public school teachers are among those who will have keen interest in what's in the fiscal document.

McNeil has promised the budget will include a significant investment for classroom inclusion ahead of a report that is expected next month. He called the report an opportunity to signal to teachers that the government is serious about providing classroom support for students with special needs.

Classroom composition, and inclusion of students with special needs, was a major issue that was seldom discussed publicly during a 16-month contract dispute that saw teachers walk off the job for a day and stage a protest outside the provincial legislature just over one year ago.

During Monday's news conference, Fran Morrison, whose son committed suicide in 2010, said she's also calling for an independent review of the Nova Scotia Health Authority's hiring practices.

She says that those hired have not succeeded in reducing waiting times or delivering front-line services.

Carla Adams, a spokeswoman for the health authority, said in an email that the organization "has processes in place to ensure our recruitment and selection process is objective, fair, transparent and based on merit."

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Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press