While health expenditures have risen every year for decades, Finance Minister Carole James said Tuesday the NDP government is determined to make up for “years of cuts” and “underfunding” by the previous Liberal government.
The B.C. Ministry of Health will spend about $21 billion in the 2019/20 fiscal year, $21.5 billion in 2020/21 and $22.1 billion in 2021/22. The 2018/2019 budget was $19.8 billion. Those figures don’t include the $10 million allocated to the Ministry of Mental Health and Additions in each of the next three fiscal periods.
It’s expected that federal transfer payments averaging about $5.5 billion in each of the next three years will help fund the spending which includes billions on new and upgraded hospitals over the next few years, including St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver and Royal Columbian in New Westminster. The government expects to spend $4.4 billion over three years on major hospital construction and upgrades, equipment and health information systems.
St. Paul’s hospital is projected to be completed by 2026 and will ultimately cost $1.9 billion.
Several hospital construction and upgrade projects are behind schedule, according to budget documents. Among them is work at Surrey Memorial Hospital, Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops and B.C. Children’s and Women’s Hospital.
James said the government has allocated $74 million over three years for a better-coordinated child and youth mental health system in which families can “ask once to get help fast.” The new approach will help “ease the worries of countless parents” who don’t know where to turn, she said.
It is described in budget documents as a program to fund prevention and early intervention for children and young adults trying to cope with mental health and addictions problems. Specialized teams of educators, counsellors, mental health experts, substance use experts and others will provide services in one-stop shop facilities, online programs and others.
James said the government would spend another $30 million on the fentanyl overdose crisis, bringing the total spent since 2017 to $608 million. Across the province, there is a need for more paramedics in rural and remote areas as they have been on the front line of the crisis.
Budget documents say funding is going towards 21 overdose prevention sites and nine supervised consumption sites. Between July 2017 and June 2018, people used drugs 475,000 times at these sites. In that period, 3,000 individuals overdosed at the sites, but all were revived by staff. Another 1,700 drug users were successfully resuscitated around the province over the past year for a total of 4,700 overdose deaths averted.
Still, about 1,500 individuals died from overdoses on streets, residencies or other places across the province in 2018.
PRIMARY CARE STRATEGY
James said the government is “hiring” 200 new family doctors, 200 nurse practitioners and 50 pharmacists, to provide “faster, better” care in “every corner of the province” at urgent care and primary health clinics. Five urgent care clinics have opened so far, including one in downtown Vancouver, and another five will open at undisclosed locations by the summer. James couldn’t say what the budget is for such clinics and staffing and Ministry of Health staff have not provided the figure either.
James seized the opportunity to slam the Liberals for their “doctor for everyone” campaign that flopped because there simply aren’t enough doctors to fulfil such a promise. The NDP scheme to hire 200 new primary care physicians is equally ambitious but James said the Liberal plan to find more family doctors “obviously didn’t work, so we’re taking a team approach.”
She was referring to the government’s oft-touted “primary care strategy” which envisions doctors, nurses and other health care providers working in teams at clinics, all under one roof. It remains more of an aspirational concept, as no specifics emerged Tuesday.
Pharmacare deductibles for 240,000 people with incomes under $45,000 have been eliminated, at a cost of $105 million over three years. The government is also spending $42 million to expand coverage for certain drugs so “people can access the medications they need,” including those for three common conditions — diabetes, asthma and hypertension.
The government is fulfilling its promise to eliminate Medical Services Plan premiums formerly charged to individuals and now paid by employers through a health tax. James said the MSP premium cut that began last year will be eliminated by the end of this year. At $2.7 billion, it is “one of the biggest middle-class tax cuts in B.C. history.”
By doing away with premiums, families will save as much as $1,800 a year. But employers are expected to make up the lost revenue through the payroll tax.
The government also announced an $89-million grant program for life sciences organizations to help them attract and retain researchers “and to support research, entrepreneurship and commercialization” of discoveries. The government expects the provincial share will help attract over $200 million in further funding from other sources.
The B.C. Care Providers Association applauded the $5 million earmarked for training workers, including health care assistants and specialty nurses. CEO Daniel Fontaine said care providers to seniors are especially feeling the effect of staff shortages in the North, the Interior and on Vancouver Island.
“When there are staff shortages, seniors that receive care at home or in a long-term care home or assisted living setting will not receive the services they need,” he said.