There will be no major increase in health care spending according to three-year fiscal plan outlined in the provincial budget tabled by Finance Minister Kevin Falcon on Tuesday.
Health care spending in B.C. will increase an average 3.2 per cent per year over the next three years -- a total of $1.5 billion over the next three years to nearly $17.3 billion by 2014-15.
Falcon says the province has been working to "bend down the curve" from seven per cent annual increases seen in budgets between 2005 and 2008.
"Even with this modest growth, health care is projected to account for more than 42 per cent of total government spending by 2014-15," he said. "We can't just keep pouring more and more dollars in. We have to find creative ways to minimize expenses – and we are."
Despite complaints of long hospital wait times and overcrowded emergency rooms, Falcon said hospitals will simply have to learn to do more with less and the government will use patient outcomes, not spending levels, to measure success.
"Our per-capita spending is the second-lowest among Canadian provinces, but our health outcomes are consistently among the best," he said.
"These are successes we can build on. We will continue to seek out efficiencies and administrative savings to maintain health outcomes while limiting – to the extent possible – the cost pressures on taxpayers."
'Screams of protest'
But former deputy minister and political commentator Bob Plecas said the health care increases projected in the budget will just about keep up with inflation, meaning health care providers will have some tough decisions to make.
"That means less programs available, less money available for health care," he said.
"The bad news for consumers is it means there may be longer waiting lists, there may be more difficulties. I think the government believes that doesn't have to happen if [health care providers] sharpen their pencils and find a way to manage within the budget they were given -- but there is going to be screams of protest."
Debra McPherson with the B.C. Nurses' Union said Falcon is "misconstruing the situation" if the thinks the budget won't hurt British Columbians.
"They'll see more of what we've already seen -- they're going to see more racking and stacking of patients in the hallways waiting for care," she said.
"They're going to see the staff working totally beyond capacity as they already are, waits for long-term care are going to accelerate. There's no room in this budget to improve home care services and home support services to keep our seniors out of acute care."
MSP premiums on the rise
The B.C. Hospital Employees' Union said the province is failing to invest in the health care of British Columbians.
"The finance minister wears our relatively low level of health spending as a badge of honour," said HEU secretary-business manager Bonnie Pearson.
"But the fact of the matter is that the positive health outcomes that we enjoy today are the results of the strategic investments we made in the past."
Medical services premiums will continue to increase over the next three years. Effective January 2013, premiums will go up four per cent, which equals about $5 a month more for a family of three or more.
But many are critical of the increases, saying the government will collect more than $2 billion through MSP premiums.
"When will the government admit MSP is a tax?" said Jordan Bateman with the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation.
McPherson said the MSP increases are just another fee being offloaded onto the middle class.
"Maybe we've got low taxes but people are paying for it in so many other ways," she said. "It's the middle-income workers with families trying to support a household … paying all the fees. They're already cutting back on important things like medications. I don't see how this is going to wash."
School districts see virtually no increases
Funding to education will also increase modestly over the next three years – K-12 spending will go up by an average of 0.6 per cent per year, while advanced education funding will increase by an average of 1.6 per cent per year.
"Funding to schools districts will increase, despite a trend of declining enrolment," Falcon said.
"In addition to the $4.7 billion a year districts will receive for the next three years, government is investing an additional $165 million to establish a fund to deal directly with issues of class composition. The annual facilities grant for maintenance again totals $110 million in 2012-13."
With funding for school districts virtually frozen over the next three years, the B.C. Teachers' Federation says inflation and downloaded costs will place pressure on school boards.
"This means $100 million in cuts to public schools next year alone," said BCTF president Susan Lambert, noting $130 million would be needed just to keep up with inflation.
"A whole generation of students have grown up going to school in larger classes without adequate support … Now we're looking at another three years of ongoing cuts and increasing demands on teachers to fill the gaps and meet students' needs."
'Built on thin air'
Teresa Rezansoff with the B.C. School Trustees' Association said the budget amounts to a cut for K-12 education.
"We are working as hard as we can to ensure that the circumstances for our students are the best we can," said.
"We asked for increased investment in public education but for us to throw up our hands and say we're not going to work hard with what we've got to make sure the outcomes for our students are the best they'll be --that is our job and that's what we're doing."
The province, Falcon said, is also working towards a shared service approach to support student learning in the K-12 sector for a potential savings of three to eight per cent each year.
The budget also calls for $70 million in administrative savings in post-secondary education between 2013 and 2015.
Zach Crispin, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students B.C., said post-secondary institutions will suffer a $41-million cut in core funding by 2014.
"The premier's 'jobs plan' is built on thin air. Post-secondary institutions will play a critical role in preparing workers for new jobs, but the government is demanding that colleges and universities do more with less."
By 2014-15, health care and education will make up 68.6 per cent of total government spending.