HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's Liberal party outlined its plan Sunday to improve health care in the province, promising to reduce wait times for surgeries and increase the number of doctors in under-serviced areas.
Leader Stephen McNeil said he would develop a provincewide surgical plan if elected Oct. 8. He vowed to reduce the number of district health authorities from 10 to two and to meet the national standard of a six-month wait for hip and knee replacement surgeries.
"By eliminating the administration portion of those health authorities, we're saving $13 million, $8.1 million of which we're putting back into dealing with wait lists," said McNeil from New Waterford, N.S., as the provincial election campaign moved into its second week.
The current wait times are among the worst in the country, with nine out of 10 patients waiting 20 months for a knee replacement and 17 months for a hip replacement, the Liberal party's platform says.
NDP politician and Health Minister David Wilson denounced the party's plan to eliminate the health authorities, saying it would pull resources out of rural regions.
"I know that the communities in Nova Scotia don't want that and they don't need that," said Wilson in an interview from the Halifax neighbourhood of Lower Sackville.
"I was a health care worker in the 1990s when they were last in government and they created chaos in the health care system. They closed hospital beds, they asked nurses to leave the province, they reduced the number of seats in the medical school for doctors."
McNeil said he would provide up to $120,000 in tuition relief annually for four years for 25 new doctors to practise in under-serviced communities. He said the program could be used to pay down student debt, or for prospective doctors who would receive tuition relief if they agreed to stay and work in the province upon graduation.
McNeil said he would also create an expert team to recruit and retain doctors.
Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie agreed that the province needs more physicians, but said "throwing money at the problem... papers over the real issue."
"For doctors too, our taxes are too high and our power rates are too high and our debt is too high, and the Liberals have no plans to address those," said Baillie from Pictou, N.S., where he was outlining the party's plan to freeze power rates for five years.
"When they do talk about health care, they don't have any credibility because they were prepared to let our medical professionals go on strike when patients need them the most."
Baillie noted that when legislation was tabled to avert a possible strike by the province's paramedics earlier this year, McNeil voted against the bill. He said a Progressive Conservative government would resolve disputes in health care through arbitration.
Wilson said 400 new doctors began practising in the province over the last four years and the Liberals promise to add another 100 over the next four years falls short.
"There is not a single new doctor who will begin practising within the next six years under the Liberal platform promise," said Wilson. "You can't force somebody to go somewhere and practise. You need to make sure that there's an environment there that is welcoming."
Wilson also slammed the Liberals for excluding from their platform a plan to keep emergency rooms open. He said the NDP has reduced emergency department closures by 92 per cent in communities where collaborative emergency departments have opened.