Union worries about health-care funding as Manitoba Legislature session opens

Health-care funding and belt-tightening will be at the forefront as the new legislative session begins Wednesday.

'What piece of my health care is going to be bent to make this happen?' union president asks

Health-care funding and belt-tightening will be at the forefront as the new legislative session begins on Wednesday. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Health-care funding and belt-tightening will be at the forefront as the new legislative session begins Wednesday.

The province's largest union has got the ball rolling by pointing to an austerity-driven mandate letter from Manitoba's health minister to the province's regional health authorities' board of directors.

The letters to the province's five health authorities from Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen sound the alarm on the province's finances and point to the need for the province to provide oversight and ensure public dollars are being spent wisely.

It also directs the board to ensure their respective authorities do not run a deficit — something the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has failed to do since 2012.

This year it is projected to run a $30-million deficit for the year ending March 31. The provincial government is facing a $1-billion deficit of its own for the fiscal year that ends March 31.

Michelle Gawronsky, the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union's president, questioned why a government that has admitted it could take eight years to get its own budget balanced is putting this pressure on the province's health-care system. She warned this type of directive will gives the health authorities few options and will lead to service cuts.

"This is our health care, this is our children. What's the rush to be able to do it in such a short period of time?" she said. "Something has got to give and our question is what is going to give? What piece of my health care is going to be bent to make this happen?"

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky is concerned that mandate letters will lead to cuts to services. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Meanwhile, a review of Manitoba's health care system by consultants KPMG could be made public some time during this session. The review will examine ways to eliminate waste in the health-care system and find efficiencies. The Opposition NDP have argued it will set the stage for massive cuts.

The Pallister government has balked at releasing the report until the 2017 budget is released — which is expected to drop at the end of March or in April. 

The NDP's interim leader Flor Marcelino called the letters a "big concern" and argued the government is putting its austerity agenda ahead of the needs of Manitobans. She argued it will pressure the board to push for cuts just to save money and meet the government's demands.

"It is not just a focus on the bottom line," she said. "In the end, if you skimp on health care, the cost will eventually be more." 

Letters quietly released

The letters were quietly posted online in December without any announcement by government, unlike when it released the mandate letters Pallister wrote to his new ministers upon taking government.

The WRHA's CEO Milton Sussman was not available for comment, but he previously told CBC News the WRHA's expenses climbed in 2016. The WRHA is responsible for providing health care to the population of Winnipeg and surrounding municipalities. It employs over 28,000 people and has an annual operating budget of nearly $2.6 billion dollars

In a prepared statement, WRHA spokesperson Bronwyn Penner-Holigroski said the WRHA will likely continue to experience volume and cost pressure this year, but is working to identify saving initiatives to combat increased demand. The regional plan to address the deficit will be approved by Manitoba Health before being implemented.

"The mandate provides the WRHA with the opportunity to identify and implement innovative, patient-centred initiatives and to ensure any actions going forward are focused on quality, transparency and sustainability," she said.

Goertzen was not available for an interview. In a prepared statement from spokesperson Amy McGuinness, she said the government expects all health regions to manage their operations sustainably while ensuring quality care.

"The financial challenges faced by our government cannot be understated, especially with the federal share of health care funding continuing to erode," she said, referencing the feds decision to only offer an increase in health transfer payments of three per cent. 

"Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living has made significant progress in its effort to find savings throughout the department and we anticipate the regions will reciprocate these efforts."

The board's chair Karen Dunlop was unavailable.​