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Can Wab Kinew fix Manitoba’s health care crisis?

We deserve a plan to fix health care, not privatize it

Canadian PoliticsHuman Rights

Premier Wab Kinew led the Manitoba New Democratic Party to a majority government on October 3, 2023. He did so with a disciplined campaign focused on highlighting the governing Progressive Conservatives’ deficiencies in health care and talking almost every day about proposals to better the system under the slogan of “Fixing Health Care.”

There’s no question that health care was the main issue for progressive voters in Manitoba. Seven years of cuts, chaos and privatization left hospitals, clinics and Regional Health Authorities (RHAs) struggling to manage capacity. Budget cuts in the name of austerity resulted in a growing health care deficit. These decisions, combined with the impact of COVID-19, resulted in doctors, nurses and medical professionals raising the alarm over Manitoba’s mounting health care capacity crisis.

The Manitoba Health Coalition (MHC) was established in 2018 to act as a leading voice in the fight against health care privatization in Manitoba. We advocate for evidence-based improvements to our public health care system, stimulate public education on health care issues and drive positive change to our health care system through campaigns across the province. As such, MHC is encouraged that several of our election priorities were a part of the Kinew NDP’s platform, including:

  • A human resources strategy with specific targets and timelines, and buy-in from the organizations representing frontline providers
  • A legislated, independent Office of the Seniors Advocate
  • Universal coverage for prescription contraceptives
  • Bringing back the Mature Women’s Health Centre
  • Support for harm reduction strategies, including overdose prevention and supervised consumption services
  • Reinstating international students health insurance coverage
  • Expanding surgical and diagnostic capacity within the public system

We believe these measures form the building blocks for a progressive health care agenda in Manitoba. But of course, there is much more that must be done. One of the greatest challenges a new NDP government will face is the powerful political and corporate forces taking aim at the public health care system across Canada.

Well-financed lobbyists are pushing privatization as a silver bullet to our health care woes. The “soft-sell” can be seen in the approach of the Canadian Medical Association, in partnership with the Globe and Mail, asking if we need more private health care in our public health care system; as if this question has not been repeatedly asked and emphatically answered in the negative for some 50 years. The hard sell is also evident. In Ontario, the Ford government is rapidly moving forward with a plan to privatize public hospitals. We can expect to see more of this push, especially if the upcoming federal election returns a Conservative government. The last time the Tories formed government, under Stephen Harper, the result was drastic cuts to federal funding for health care. This time a coordinated, ideological approach could spell disaster for the public system.

During the recent Manitoba provincial election, Wab Kinew led a disciplined campaign focused on highlighting the governing Progressive Conservatives’ deficiencies in health care. Photo courtesy Wab Kinew/X.

That’s why it is encouraging that one of the first announcements made by the new premier and health minister was to pause operations on the Surgical and Diagnostic Recovery Task Force. Earlier this year MHC helped to expose that the task force signed a secret contract with Cambie Surgeries and Dr. Brian Day, the leading proponent of private, user-pay, two-tier health care in Canada. And a private clinic here in Manitoba, Prota Clinic—whose owners donated directly to former Premier Heather Stefanson’s PC leadership campaign—was granted a provincial government contract despite illegally charging patients user fees for medically necessary services. At every step, the previous government’s push for increased private delivery of health care services has led to less transparency and accountability, staff being poached from the public system, higher (or hidden) costs and worse outcomes for patients.

MHC is concerned that no party committed to taking on the privatization of seniors’ care during the election. It is our position that a major problem in seniors’ care in Manitoba is the prevalence of the private, for-profit sector. We will continue to push for the elimination of for-profit seniors’ care in Manitoba, both residential and home-based. Nor did the NDP (or any other party) propose measures to counter the private health care staffing agencies—especially the nursing agencies—that currently wield enormous power in our hospitals, our personal care homes and in home care.

MHC’s role is to push for a universal, public health care system that works for people, not profit. We see the election result as an opportunity to move on from the negligent choices of the last seven years. But the Kinew government—like any government, regardless of party affiliation—will be under heavy pressure from some of the wealthiest businesses and individuals in our province to support private health care. This is especially true given that the NDP did accept the constraints imposed on it by the final PC budget, including big tax cuts which will necessarily curtail the amount of resources available to address the new government’s priorities.

Manitobans do not need privatization pipe dreams. We deserve a plan to fix health care, not privatize it. And we need to step back from the seven years of austerity that has bred cynicism in our health care system and extremism in our politics.

Premier Kinew has promised that his will be a “listening government.” In many ways, this may be the most important commitment he has made to health care. Manitobans believe that everyone in our province has the right to the care they need when they need it—regardless of ability to pay. We want to see real action to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Manitobans when it comes to health outcomes and access to health services. We want to take this opportunity for change to build stronger communities and a better public health care system. A government that truly listens to these priorities, and acts on them, can be a progressive leader in health care for Canada and the world.

Thomas Linner is provincial director of the Manitoba Health Coalition, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to the protection and expansion of public health care in Manitoba.

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