Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia budget sees $200M boost in health-care spending

Helped along by major funding increases from Ottawa, the McNeil government is attempting to address concerns over clogged emergency departments and doctor access.

McNeil government attempts to address concerns over clogged ERs, doctor access

Finance Minister Karen Casey speaks to reporters Tuesday shortly before tabling the 2019-20 budget. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

Premier Stephen McNeil's government will spend almost $200 million more on health care in the coming fiscal year as part of its 2019-20 budget, helped along by major funding increases from Ottawa.

The budget tabled Tuesday by Finance Minister Karen Casey, the fourth-consecutive balanced document from the Liberals, estimates $10.98 billion in expenses, with a surplus of $33.6 million.

Much of the new spending relates to previously announced programs that will soon kick in, or the expansion of existing programs and services. But where most of it materializes is health care, a subject the government has been relentlessly hammered on as emergency rooms clog with patients, people search for doctors and health workers face burnout.

Casey told reporters the government has heard the public's concern and they're responding accordingly.

"We're not shying away from the fact that there's a problem with health care, and that's why we're investing additional money each year into that."

Overall, the Health Department budget is growing from $4.4 billion to $4.6 billion.

The province benefits from an increase of $41 million in the federal health transfer, $28.5 million as part of its mental-health agreement with Ottawa and $100 million more in equalization transfers.

There's an additional $10 million for more collaborative-care teams, $8.4 million more for pharmacare and an additional $16.8 million for home-care services. Mental-health support funding is going up by $11.7 million.

The expenses estimated for a selection of provincial departments (CBC)

The government will spend $2.9 million on 15 previously announced new residency spaces at Dalhousie University for medical specialists, and $2.2 million more for hip and knee replacements.

Emergency Health Services will receive an additional $4.6 million, a reflection of ballooning call volumes faced by paramedics across the province.

There's also $2.8 million more for long-term care to help address concerns about bedsores, although details of that spending aren't yet ready.

McNeil said he believes there is enough in the budget to make a noticeable difference to health care, and the government is beginning to benefit from training and recruitment initiatives previously announced.

Work on long-term care beds

The finance minister revealed the number of new long-term care beds in Cape Breton will increase.

Redevelopment plans in Cape Breton Regional Municipality called for the construction of two new long-term care sites in New Waterford and North Sydney, with a combined total of 100 beds, 50 of which would be new. On Thursday, Casey said that total will now be 120.

There remains no timeline for the construction and government officials did not have information Tuesday about the distribution of the additional 20 beds.

Casey also told reporters the government is looking at building new long-term care beds in the communities of Mahone Bay and Meteghan. The government is working with proponents in both areas to finalize proposals for replacement projects and to determine if those sites require more beds.

McNeil said one of the things being considered is whether doctors' offices could be a part of the new developments. He said the sites have been up for consideration for several years.

"It's been an ongoing process," he said.

As previously announced, expenses related to the major redevelopment of health-care facilities in Cape Breton and Halifax kick in this year to the tune of almost $157 million.

'Dumpster full of disappointment'

While opposition leaders praised the additional funding for mental health, they had little else positive to say about the budget.

Tory Leader Tim Houston said simply adding money to the health-care budget isn't enough to improve services, something he said is clear based on past performance.

"Even in last year's budget they had an increase of $100 million, and I don't think you could find a single Nova Scotian that would say that that $100 million improved health care in the province, and I'm just worried the same thing is going to happen this year."

Houston said the system needs to be better managed, including making sure there are enough people in place.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill called the budget "a dumpster full of disappointment."

He was particularly disappointed to see no new initiatives, such as new long-term care beds, to address pressures on the health-care system.

"It required a comprehensive plan, major investment. We haven't got it in this budget."

Jason MacLean, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said he doesn't see enough in the budget to address emergency department backlogs and other health-care challenges now.

MacLean said he was hoping to see some new full-time hires for health care and child-welfare services.

Casey addresses the legislature as she presents the Nova Scotia provincial budget for 2019-2020 in Halifax. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The Education Department's budget also continues to grow, up about $33 million to $1.4 billion. The pre-primary program's continued expansion will get an additional $10.2 million, with plans to have the program available provincewide for four-year-olds by September 2020.

The government will also spend $67 million (including $11 million from Ottawa) to expand access to regulated child-care services and increase subsidies. There will be another $15 million to go toward recommendations from the Commission on Inclusive Education, and more money for reading programs and to keep class sizes smaller.

The budget also includes incremental increases to support people through the Community Services Department. There will be a $14.2-million increase for programs for people with disabilities, and $5.6 million more to introduce the standard household rate, which means people receiving income assistance will get the maximum amount possible for rate increases.

Here's how this year's total expenses compare to past budgets. The percentages indicate how much of the budget each of the six departments represented has been allotted. The six departments do not represent 100 per cent of the budget. (CBC)

The government will also spend $1.7 million to make good on its promise to exempt child-support payments from income assistance calculations and expand the rent supplement program by $3 million.

Work on eight small options homes and two community options homes will also continue.

Support to universities increases

Support to universities will increase by one per cent, with government officials saying they expect the new memorandum of understanding with post-secondaries to be ready within months. There's funding for mental-health support for university students as well as sexualized violence services.

But Aidan McNally with the Canadian Federation of Students said that's not nearly good enough, calling for more support for survivors.

The province's universities will see a one per cent increase in support. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

McNally said the government's touting of its loan forgiveness program for Nova Scotia students is likewise insufficient.

She called it a "shell game" the government is playing to try to keep Nova Scotia students here while failing to address the fact students are leaving in search of lower tuition rates and higher wages.

"We wanted to see a decrease in tuition fees and investments in upfront grants."

Crown corporation Develop Nova Scotia will get an additional $2.5 million, primarily to help with its directive to manage the expansion of high-speed internet to underserviced areas.

New tax measures

New tax measures in the budget include opening up the innovation equity tax credit for companies in the province to make direct equity investments in small and medium-sized Nova Scotia businesses.

There's also a new venture capital tax credit to try to get people and businesses in the province to support funds that invest in Nova Scotia businesses.

The province's net debt is expected to grow to $15.3 billion, with the net debt-to-GDP ratio expected to go down to 33.8 per cent. There are no tax or fee increases in the budget.