HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's opposition parties are accusing the Liberal government of playing pre-election politics with hospitals after the premier rolled out promises for a new facility in Pugwash and renovations in Bridgewater.
Tim Houston, the Progressive Conservative finance critic, pressed the deputy minister of finance to release the health-projects priority list during a legislature committee hearing on Wednesday.
Byron Rafuse said both projects announced Tuesday by Premier Stephen McNeil had been on the list, but he declined to release the priority list — citing cabinet confidentiality.
"We need to know there is a process, and the process is being respected," Houston responded.
"We need to know the government is following the priorities of the people, and we don't have any evidence the premier is doing anything other than following his own priorities."
Houston said it's odd the premier is "running around announcing things when he doesn't know how much they're going to cost," after years of underspending on the health capital budget.
Over the last three years, the province has spent almost $75 million less than budgeted on health capital projects, with another under-budget year expected to be announced in the April 27 budget, said a government spokeswoman in an email.
Asked why projects were included in the capital budget and then dropped, Rafuse said there was shift in plans.
"There was some hope that some could advance and we wanted to make provisions to allow that to happen," he said.
McNeil said in an interview that his government started its term by creating a single health authority that could plan health reform on a provincewide basis.
He also said the Pugwash hospital had been promised by all three political parties and is long overdue, as are the renovations in Bridgewater's South Shore Regional Hospital.
"I showed up there (in Pugwash) yesterday to tell that community I didn't come to make promises, I came to make a commitment to them and we will have full design and will have dirt moving next year," he said in a telephone interview.
"They're isolated geographically ... and we wanted to ensure they had a more modern facility to retain their health care professionals."
The premier has faced criticism for his government's failure to meet a 2013 election pledge to ensure each Nova Scotian had access to a family physician, even as the Liberals ramp up for an election expected as early as this spring.
The opposition parties are also criticizing McNeil's government for its slow pace in finding alternatives to the Centennial building of the Victoria General hospital in Halifax.
Last year, staff at the Centennial Building complained water was undrinkable due to pipes fouled by Legionnaire's disease, as floods disrupted surgeries, bedbugs were rampant and rodents were seen in the halls.
McNeil defended the government's health care record, saying it has taken time to merge a disjointed system of health authorities into a single agency.
He said with the merger complete, the Nova Scotia Health Authority is now taking decisions on a provincewide basis, and spending on capital plans — such as renovations at the South Shore Regional Hospital — can accelerate.
The government has so far committed to funding the preliminary design phase for the renovation of the hospital's emergency department, the endoscopy unit, and the addition of a dialysis unit.
It says in a news release that construction will begin in fall 2018.
NDP health critic Dave Wilson said McNeil's prior commitments to ensure access to family physicians and improve primary care haven't been achieved, and Nova Scotians should be skeptical of the latest promises.
He also said it's time the Health and Finance departments make the hospital-spending priority list public, as it does with road, bridge and other major infrastructure spending.
The New Democrat said the public will remain wary of announcements — such as the ones made in recent days — when specific amounts of money aren't disclosed and an election campaign is in the offing.
In the phone interview, McNeil didn't commit to releasing the priority list for capital spending in health.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press