Opposition parties pummel government over 'privatization' of mobile mental-health units

A controversial change to the way the Prince Edward Island government plans to run a long-awaited mobile mental mental-health crisis service dominated question period in the provincial legislature Friday.

'We need to stop worrying about silos ... and turf protection' premier says

Liberal Sonny Gallant, top left, and Opposition leader Peter Bevan-Baker, bottom left, peppered Premier Dennis King, top right, and Health Minister Ernie Hudson, lower right, with questions about what they called government's 'privatization' of mobile mental-health units. (P.E.I. Legislative Assembly)

A controversial change to the way the Prince Edward Island government plans to run a long-awaited mobile mental-health crisis service dominated question period in the provincial legislature Friday.

The province plans to have three mobile units — one based in each of P.E.I.'s counties — able to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis, along with a 24-hour phone line as a first point of contact for those in distress. The units will operate 12 hours a day, from noon until midnight, and are to be staffed by a mental health professional, a plain-clothes police officer and a paramedic.

Thursday, the government confirmed its plans for the units has changed and instead of being run by Health PEI, they will now be run by Island EMS, a private company that runs the province's ambulance service. 

Both the Official Opposition Green Party and the opposition Liberals peppered Health Minister Ernie Hudson and Premier Dennis King with questions about the change, calling it "privatization."

"How do you explain this sudden change beyond a political attempt to put a Band-Aid over your government's inaction on this mental health crisis?" asked Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker. 

He called the change a "frenzied attempt to get this thing off the ground without considering the impacts on Islanders in crisis or the health care workers."

King replied the government had not made a "sinister attempt to hide" the change, saying it was an effort to get the units on the road. 

Hudson said the idea of having the paramedic service run the units has "always been looked at," and offered assurances the service "is about Islanders."

Nurses' union calls it privatization

Both Bevan-Baker and interim Liberal Leader Sonny Gallant questioned whether the government had consulted with unions with members involved in the project, to which Hudson replied government had just had a "very positive" 8 a.m. meeting with the unions. 

The P.E.I. Nurses' Union told CBC News Thursday it views the change as privatization.

P.E.I. has three unmarked vehicles to be used for its mobile mental-health crisis units. Dr. Jonathan Dudek is the psychologist team lead for the project. (P.E.I. Government)

President Barbara Brookins said she has concerns how nurses still employed by Health PEI will be managed by a private company.

"Three successive governments have been trying to roll this out Mr. Speaker, I think that's long enough, it's time to get the service going and that's what we're doing," King said. "I have no interest in privatization, I'm not looking to change any jobs, I'm not looking to save any money." 

The premier later added "we need to stop worrying about silos, Mr. Speaker, and turf protection."   

"Obviously they're collaborating after the fact. Hey, this is important stuff, but you should have spoke to the people before you made the announcement," Gallant said. 

The premier then took a jab at the Liberals, who had talked for years about such a service.

"I can't help what you didn't do, Mr. Speaker, I'm just trying to fix some of it," King said.

Pay for service?

Bevan-Baker also wanted to know if Islanders would have to pay for a visit by the mental health units, as they do for an ambulance run by Island EMS.

"Absolutely not," Hudson replied. 

Hudson said he does not know exactly when the teams will begin work, and that it's too early to say how much Island EMS will be paid for managing the service. 

In response to a question from Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly, the premier gave a quick update on the progress of a promised mental health campus planned in Charlottetown, part of which will replace the aging Hillsborough Hospital, built in 1957. 

King said the province is working to complete plans for the campus. 

"I believe we're on track for 2024 or something to complete that major project," he said, noting it will cost "in excess of $200 million" by the time it is done.

"I'd like to get it going as soon as possible," King said. 

More from CBC P.E.I.


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