No budget hike for health districts
Nova Scotia's nine district health authorities and the IWK Health Centre in Halifax will have to make do without any funding increases this year, Health Minister Maureen MacDonald said Thursday.
MacDonald said when the spring budget is tabled they will be given the same amount as last year — roughly $1.6 billion out of an allotted $3.6 billion for health care.
The minister said health authorities will have to find ways to manage and control cost pressures.
MacDonald admits it will be difficult, but said it was necessary given that health-care costs have almost doubled in 10 years.
"This will be a challenge because the health authorities are used to getting substantial increases year after year," she said, noting last year's $31 million increase.
Health spending currently accounts for 42 per cent of the total provincial budget.
MacDonald said all health authorities will be expected to protect patient care as well as mental health and addictions services.
MacDonald explained why her department would not face cuts like those in education where the budget is expected to be trimmed by $17.6 million or 1.65 per cent.
"Health is not like education, we don't have a declining enrolment," she said. "We have actually a growing number of people in our province … who have chronic diseases, so we need to continue to provide the best possible health care we can provide."
Last year the Capital District Health Authority, the province's largest, received $689.2 million in funding.
Chief financial officer Amanda Whitewood said the same level of funding would actually translate into an $11.3 million cut this fiscal year because of increased costs for such things as supplies and labour.
"We need to look at all of those and pull back and prioritize," said Whitewood.
She said the health authority will rely on attrition and will look at doing work differently in order to help maintain patient care levels.
"The assumption that we are doing everything right needs to be challenged," she said.
As an example, Whitewood said Capital Health had been able to increase it's surgical cases by 730 last year while reducing its supply costs by nearly $1-million.
She said that was done through a more thorough examination of vendors and pricing while standardizing practices and equipment selection.
The head of the province's largest public sector union said the funding freeze would affect patient care in a system already overstressed by a lack of personnel and resources.
Joan Jessome of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union said many positions would go unfilled as a result, while the workload for employees such as nurses would only increase.
She's particularly unhappy district health authorities will have to foot the bill for current-year wage increases, with nine contracts for about 10,000 employees up for negotiation.
"If you don't have appropriate staff, that doesn't mean it's cheaper to deliver health care, you've got overtime costs, absenteeism and injuries … it could end up costing more," Jessome said.
She said overtime costs for nurses alone have recently run as high as $5-million.