Canadian task force blasts Sask. hearing cuts

Deaf and hard of hearing children and their families are planning to protest government cuts today at the Saskatchewan legislature in Regina.

Province's supply of audiologists lowest in Canada, protest at legislature planned for today

Dolan and Wyatt Lennea of Meadow Lake's and their mother Kim protested cuts to the provincial Hearing Aid Plan (HAP) last week in downtown Saskatoon. (Jason Warick/CBC )

The supply of audiologists in Saskatchewan pales in comparison to other provinces, and advocates say it's about to get much worse.

That's one reason deaf and hard of hearing children and their families are planning to protest at the Saskatchewan legislature later today.

"It just seems like a shotgun approach — target anything that moves," said Karen Wasylenko, president of the Health Sciences Association of Saskatchewan (HSAS).

A growing chorus of national experts is also blasting the cuts.

"All children in Canada deserve a chance to hear and communicate and a chance to succeed, including those in your province. I urge you to consider the implications," states a letter to Premier Brad Wall and Health Minister Jim Reiter from Dr. Steven James Aiken, chair of the Canadian Infant Hearing Task Force.

In an interview, Reiter said the government is "trying to make the wisest use of tax dollars," and believes private sector experts can compensate for any cuts.

He said critics are mistaken about the impact and the numbers.

"Frankly, I think they're confused," he said.

According to numbers supplied to CBC News by the government, Saskatchewan will be left with a total of 30 audiologists after the budget cuts take effect July 1. Only seven of those will remain in the public sector.

HSAS and others say it's the government that's misleading the public and that there will only be a total of 26 remaining in Saskatchewan, with just three in the public sector.

"We need these specialists in the province to help our citizens. They deserve better. They deserve more," Wasylenko said.

According to numbers supplied by HSAS and other provincial bodies, Ontario and Quebec employ hundreds of audiologists. Some operate their own businesses, but many work in hospitals, public clinics and schools.

Saskatchewan also registers far lower numbers than all other Western Canadian provinces. Some, such as Alberta, are planning to hire more. Newfoundland and New Brunswick, with far smaller populations, will have more audiologists than Saskatchewan.

Minister to consider widespread infant screening

Saskatchewan recently received one of the worst scores among provinces for its treatment of those with hearing problems. Aiken and others note only Newfoundland and Saskatchewan lack widespread infant screening.

Aiken says research has proven screening saves the health system millions in future costs.

Reiter said he can "certainly see the value" of comprehensive infant screening and will consider it. Reiter said the cuts will not impact the current selective infant screening programs.

He also said there's no plan to reverse the July 1 cuts.

Aiken and others wonder how he plans to expand service while slashing the supply of audiologists. Aiken called the planned cuts "a disservice to many of the youngest and most vulnerable citizens of the province."

Families from across Saskatchewan were en route to Regina Wednesday morning. They plan to sit in the gallery during the afternoon session at the legislature.

The protest is set to begin at approximately 3 p.m., said an organizer.