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JIM VIBERT: Doctors, others in N.S. health say system near collapse

stethoscope
stethoscope

Elusive health information from N.S. government

Tim Hortons has become just about the best place to get information on health care in Nova Scotia, and given the record of the health authority and the government, news gleaned over a double-double is as good as any.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority Board operates at a level of secrecy envied by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Health Department is a bastion of rule-making and policy esoterica, and the politicians who are supposed to be accountable, punt questions back to the NSHA.

With the exodus of family doctors – to retirement, frustration or both – threatening to become a stampede, Health Minister Randy Delorey seems confident the health authority will turn around its losing recruitment record, although the source of his confidence is a mystery.

Opposition Leader Jamie Baillie asked the government Friday about the “internationally-recognized” marketing firm the NSHA said in March it was contracting to lead a physician recruitment strategy. Baillie wanted to know the value of the contract. Premier Stephen McNeil didn’t have the answer, but said he would try to get it.

The authority chose National Public Relations in August after a protracted competition. The value of the contract remains unknown, but provincial tendering rules dictate it must be less than $50,000 given the proposals were by invitation only.

The premier is relying on an increase in family doctor residency spots to start filling the gap. The fall budget funded 10 additional residencies, but the province is currently suffering a net annual loss of about 60 family docs. That doesn’t add up, but it does subtract doctors.

Given as many as 100,000 Nova Scotians are without a family doctor and, as reported by Paul Schneidereit this week in the Chronicle Herald, 46 practicing family doctors are over 71, the government’s professed confidence is starting look like whistling past the graveyard.

And on the question of morbidity, the health minister told the legislature Friday that the health authority has a plan to address what appear to be unnecessary deaths prevalent in Cape Breton.

When Cape Breton Centre New Democrat Tammy Martin referenced two deaths – a woman transferred by taxi between two hospital emergency departments, and a man left in a hallway with a broken intravenous – the minister suggested the NSHA is putting the “tragic” situation right.

Doctors in Cape Breton have been warning for at least a year that gaps in the area’s health resources will kill patients.

Apparently buoyed by a second, slimmed down majority after an election driven by health issues, the premier is maintaining his position that there is no health crisis in the province.

In fact, whether the question is untimely death, a shortage of doctors, cancelled surgeries or the inability to get reliable information, the government’s posture on health care seems to fall somewhere between mild concern and indulgence.

“There’s nothing to worry about, we have it under control,” is the unspoken message, despite a torrent of evidence to the contrary.

It’s as if the government knows something the rest of us don’t, which is likely given how little the rest of us are permitted to know.

When Baillie tried to zero in on the dearth of information, the premier and health minister bounced questions to the NSHA.

The government disputes the contention that the NSHA Board holds its meetings in secret, claiming instead they are private. No minutes or agenda of the board meetings are made public, and it inexplicably goes “in-camera” before and after its private sessions.

The premier says he doesn’t know why the board meetings are secret, and suggested the question is best put to the NSHA. The authority has already stated that private board meetings are at the government’s direction.

Doctors in Nova Scotia are sounding the alarm that the health system is nearing collapse, one in 10 Nova Scotians can’t get a family doctor, and information related to health care is limited mostly to funding announcements and emergency room closures.

If the government can’t muster the fortitude to share more reliable information with Nova Scotians, its credibility will be gone faster than the next doctor.

Meanwhile, the word down at Tim’s is that the best way to jump the doctor gap is to call the paramedics and fake a heart attack.

- Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers

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