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Sask. finance minister cautions against using surplus to fund overburdened health system

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Saskatchewan’s healthcare spending will rise to record levels in the 2023-24 provincial budget but, after adjusting for inflation, critics say the boost is weaker than advertised.

The province is planning on just over $7 billion in health spending across all departments for 2023-24, up from $6.823 billion last year. In other words, a three per cent increase in spending, when year-over-year inflation was 6.6 per cent, according to the province.

“Unfortunately we’re just keeping pace with inflation,” said Vicki Mowat, NDP critic for health. “When people can not get access to a doctor, or a nurse practitioner, there is a serious problem in this province.”

Finance Minister Donna Harpauer told the media on Wednesday that spending more of the current surplus on health care could have been a dangerous move.

“If that surplus is due to one-time revenue, be very careful,” she said. “If you put it into health care and then you say, ‘Just kidding,’ the next year, then what have you really gained?”

The provincial government is leaning into its efforts to hire more healthcare workers, establishing a new agency to recruit and retain staff.

"We have a very good success rate with key position like nursing across hard to recruit areas," said Paul Merriman, health minister.

"We've got almost 400 conditional offers from Filipino nurses, we have 100 nurses that we hired in December alone, we have another cohort that's graduating in April that we're going to be looking at hiring ... I think this goes to show that our program is working."

The province will spend $100 million across all departments as part of its recruitment plans, with $55.5 million going to the health ministry.

An effort to create 250 new full-time positions will be bolstered by an extra $22 million, 100 of which have already been filled, the government says.

An $11.9 million investment will continue the international recruitment efforts, according to a provincial news release.

Finance minister Donna Harpauer told media Wednesday morning that some of these investments won’t see an impact for a few years, as the province works to expand the number of training seats for health workers.

Mowat says the recruitment efforts should put more focus on ambulance services.

“We’ve been hearing about the crucial need for investment in emergency services for so long now,” said Mowat.

“We hear from folks consistently that those supports are not there when they need them, and I think that’s evidenced when we see people having to wait hours for an ambulance to show up, hours at the emergency room to be offloaded by the ambulance,” she said.

“We know these are pressures due to short staffing, and not having enough of these people on the road when we need them.”

People take for granted that there will be an ambulance available when they need it, Mowat says, and that’s not always the case.

Merriman defended his government's $8 million increase to EMTs, saying they already made a significant investment in new EMT positions last year. The health ministry is also working on reducing the amount of time it takes EMTs to discharge patients once they get to emergency rooms, he said.

For capital spending, the province is putting nearly $100 million toward the Victoria Hospital redevelopment in Prince Albert, $38 million for the Weyburn General Hospital project, and $20 million for a long-term care facility in La Ronge, plus other smaller investments across the province.

Public health and community care initiatives are seeing an increase of $6.6 million this year, with the province looking to hire five more virtual triage physicians for HealthLine 811.

RECRUITMENT EFFORTS CREATING WAGE DISPARITIES, UNION SAYS

The Canadian Union of Public Employees says the government has paid more than $730,000 to hire LPNs through a private staffing firm.

Bashir Jalloh, president of CUPE 5430, says these privately contracted staff are hurting morale because they’re being offered higher wages than Saskatchewan-based workers doing the same job, and they’re being offered compensation for travel, accommodations and meals.

“Imagine you are a CCA who has been working for the Saskatchewan Health Authority for the last five years,” Jalloh said in a news release. “Suddenly you are working side by side with someone from a private company who is doing the same job as you, but getting paid more per hour, and with free accommodations, meals and expenses covered.”

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