Nova Scotia

Premier scolds MLA for 'simplistic' view on costs of treating chronic disease

Premier Stephen McNeil says he personally texted his Liberal colleague Hugh MacKay about comments the rookie MLA made about the costs of treating people with chronic illness.

Stephen McNeil says Hugh MacKay incorrectly appeared to speak for government

Liberal MLA Hugh MacKay apologized Monday for comments he made online the day before about the cost of treating illnesses sometimes related to lifestyle choices. (CBC)

Premier Stephen McNeil says he personally texted his Liberal colleague Hugh MacKay about comments the rookie MLA made about the costs of treating people with chronic illness.

"We made it very clear that the position that was there wasn't our position," the premier told reporters Thursday in Halifax.

MacKay, the MLA for Chester-St. Margaret's, took to social media on Sunday to say the treatment cost of "oft-preventable diseases" such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and cancer "is a source of great frustration for our health care professionals and for your government."

McNeil said MacKay, like any member of the legislature, is free to speak on any subject he wants. But when that's done in a way that suggests he's speaking on behalf of the government, it becomes a problem, said McNeil.

Premier Stephen McNeil said government members are free to debate policy amongst colleagues, but public pronouncements should fall to cabinet ministers. (CBC)

The premier said it's "a great lesson" for any new politician, particularly one that's a member of government, about how the way an idea is communicated can create problems.

Cabinet ministers should be the ones speaking about government policies and positions, he said, otherwise further explanations — like the one McNeil was providing Thursday — are often required.

"Then I as [their] premier and the leader of this party am going to stand in front of cameras to actually respond to issues, which is unnecessary and doesn't reflect the government's position or doesn't reflect the needs and desire of this premier."

MacKay removed his post and apologized on Facebook a day later. He noted the original comments lacked the nuance such a topic requires, and he failed to consider mitigating factors such as the social determinants of health when he suggested most people's health problems are linked to poor lifestyle choices.

MacKay has since also removed his apology.

'It's not as simplistic as that'

McNeil said while his government, as others before his have done, has focused on promoting healthy lifestyles, there are many other factors, such as socioeconomics and genetics, that play into health. The premier said MacKay's post fell short of reflecting that notion.

"The post made it sound like, in my view, that for those who don't have an option, for those who don't have the economic means to buy some other food options, they have a choice. Well, it's more challenging than that, it's not as simplistic as that."

The premier conceded chronic disease management is a major challenge for the province and more work is needed to improve it. But that work extends well beyond just telling people to drink and smoke less and eat healthier food, he said.

About the Author

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

With files from Jean Laroche