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Nova Scotia plan to address challenges in health system panned for lacking detail

HALIFAX –

The highly anticipated plan for reforming Nova Scotia’s ailing health system is “nothing new” and lacks detail, opposition parties said Friday, after the Progressive Conservatives released their strategy to fulfil their main election promise.

Originally scheduled to be released at the end of March, the government’s 31-page “Action for Health” plan outlines six broad areas that need reform. The Tories say they also want to tackle three core issues — recruitment and retention of health-care professionals, access to care, and replacement of outdated infrastructure.

However, there are no timelines or targets included in the four-year plan that is expected to run until 2026.

“It’s a smattering of bullet points that have been put together for a marketing document,” Liberal Leader Iain Rankin told reporters Friday. “A plan would have specific timelines on how they are going to action new items, so I’m very underwhelmed.”

Health officials, however, said Friday they intend to establish benchmarks for such things as doctor recruitment and patient wait-lists for surgeries by early summer.

But NDP health critic Susan Leblanc said that isn’t good enough.

“This plan came out three weeks late and now we’re told that we need to wait again for benchmarks and targets,” Leblanc said. “There’s nothing new, there are action words but there’s nothing to make them immediate.”

The Tories were elected last August largely on a single-issue campaign of addressing problems in health care.

On Friday, Premier Tim Houston was adamant his government’s plan will give “structure” to what needs to be done to improve the system.

“We are going to make significant improvements to health care,” Houston said. “We are very focused on making sure Nova Scotians can access the care they need when they need it.”

The broad reforms outlined for the system include making the province a “magnet” for health professionals by streamlining recruitment. The plan also calls for expanding virtual care to consultations with specialists and to be an option in emergency departments.

Houston said the utilization of virtual care as a way of accessing primary care will be a feature of the system for the foreseeable future.

The remaining areas outlined in the government’s strategy include steps to expand the role of health professionals such as nurses and pharmacists, to build accountability at every level of the system and to support programs that promote health and well-being.

Houston said the proposed reform incorporates much of what was heard during a fall public tour by government officials, who sought feedback from nurses, doctors and other health professionals.

In their campaign platform, the Tories promised to increase the number of family doctors and nurses, bolster the mental health system and increase the number of long-term care beds in the province by 2,500. They also promised to reduce surgery wait times to the national average within 18 months.

The government’s 2022-23 budget tabled in late March contains $5.7 billion for health care — an increase of $413.4 million compared to last fiscal year’s spending. Within that fiscal envelope is $17.5 million to perform an additional 2,500 surgeries.

Currently, the province has a backlog of about 27,000 surgeries, many postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other pressing issues are doctor shortages that have seen the province’s primary care wait-list balloon to just over 88,000 people as of April 1 and an acute-care bed-occupancy rate that was at 106 per cent earlier this week.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2022.

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