Pallister tight-lipped on privatizing home care services, says he is about 'results'

Manitoba's premier isn't ready to say whether his government plans to privatize the province's home care services, but says all options are on the table.

MGEU spokesperson says members shocked to learn 'enhanced home care service' will contract out jobs

The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union says an incoming home care program will contract out jobs to the private sector. (Corbis)

Manitoba's premier isn't ready to say whether his government plans to privatize the province's home care services, but says all options are on the table.

"I'll continue to say that we are looking for results and improving results. We shouldn't be close-minded about it. All across the country other provinces have faced up to these challenges — some private improvements, lots of changes within the public sector delivery model," Brian Pallister said Thursday following the last question period before the legislature breaks for the summer.

"We are pursuing these things. We are looking for options."

Pallister and the Progressive Conservatives were asked about their plans for home care Thursday after the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (MGEU) revealed the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority intends to contract out services provided by home care nurses for its newly announced "enhanced home care service."

The union's president charges it is the first step toward privatizing all of Manitoba's home care services and will result in public sector job losses.

"[Home care workers] are very, very concerned. They're angry, they're upset," Michelle Gawronsky told CBC News.

Michelle Gawronsky is the president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union. (Radio-Canada)

Pallister repeatedly told media his government's first concern is getting "better results."

"We are looking for major change to happen within our system and we are being attacked for trying to improve a system that is the worst in Canada," he said. 

New service 'a shift to privatized home care delivery'

In April, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority announced plans to launch a new the enhanced service this year after cancelling the Hospital Home Team, a unit of about 10 nurses in charge of caring for around 550 chronically ill Winnipeggers in their homes.

The province previously gave $1.7 million to the health authority to pay for the program, but funding ended on March 31. Gawronsky said she was informed of the decision to hire outside of the MGEU for the new service at a meeting on May 8 with WRHA president Milton Sussman.

Union members were shocked to learn jobs will be contracted out, an MGEU spokesperson said.

"When you're talking about enhancing a home care system, we already have one. We have the best program in Canada," Gawronsky said, adding the union represents more than 2,000 workers in Winnipeg alone.

"This new program … is exactly what our members do today, every day."

The incoming enhanced program signals a shift toward privatized home care delivery, Gawronsky said. 

The union held a meeting Wednesday to inform members that jobs could be contracted out in the future. 

Under Manitoba's current model all regional health authorities are required to provide home care services to persons who meet the criteria of the program's mandate. This includes providing services to persons so they can remain at home, delaying the need to go to a long-term care facility. It also helps place individuals in long-term care facilities when home care services cannot be maintained safely and provide services until they are placed in a facility.

These services are provided free of charge to those who meet the assessment criteria for admission to the Home Care Program. Under the current contract with the MGEU, 80 per cent of the workers have to come from the union.

In a letter sent to Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen on May 31, Gawronsky voiced concerns that contracting out for the new program could breach this provision in the collective agreement. 

The province released a report in January saying it had to come up with an additional $572 million over the next two decades to cover basic home care costs to take care of the aging baby boomer generation. 

It outlined the growing costs associated with the public system, which costs the government over $300 million annually. With significant growth in the province's seniors population expected, the report by consultant Reg Toews said that figure could increase to $874 million by 2037.

The Gary Filmon Tories famously tried to move toward private, for-profit home care in 1996 and saw significant pushback. That attempt was ultimately dropped after a brief pilot project was launched.

The WRHA previously indicated it would need more workers to tackle the increase in demand, a spokesperson with the health authority said.

Spokespersons with Manitoba Health and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said they are limited in what they can say about government programs during a byelection period under the Manitoba Election Financing Act. A byelection is scheduled for June 13 in the Point Douglas ward.

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With files from Meaghan Ketcheson, Camille Gris Roy