Lawrie McFarlane: When ministers focus on shiny trinkets, basic services pay the price

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On August 27, 72-year-old Parksville resident Chuck Blakey lay dying on his kitchen floor as family members waited for an ambulance to arrive. When they called 911, an operator answered them who put them on hold and broadcast an automated message over and over again.

When an ambulance finally arrived, 30 minutes later and 15 minutes too late, Blakey was dead.

On September 14, a man from Qualicum Beach was waiting for an ambulance to arrive. Ian Weir had had prostate surgery and his bladder was blocked, leaving only a few drops of blood to come out.

His wife called 911 and was told she was third. Exasperated, she ran to the ambulance station two blocks away where she received a cold response.

An ambulance finally arrived, 30 minutes later. “Seriously,” Weir said, “if I had had a gun that night, I would have shot myself.”

These were not isolated incidents either. A 911 operator told The Times Colonist that the tragedy of a man dying while waiting for ambulance service occurs daily.

So what’s up? This is the sort of thing you would expect in a Third World city during a Category 5 hurricane, with a meter of water on the streets and down power lines.

Part of the answer is that we have pushed government to breaking point, and beyond.

Between 1966 and 1996, there was a huge expansion in the size and scope of the public sector. But the money was not there to pay for it.

During these three decades, every government in Canada, federal and provincial, ran annual deficits. When this ultimately could not continue, the ax fell and fell most heavily on the health care system, which was then, and still is, the costliest public service.

I headed the British Columbia Ministry of Health in the early 1990s and, before that, Saskatchewan’s first regional health authority. I was there when the music stopped.

The first cuts were easy. If we had stopped there, the quality of care could have been preserved. But we didn’t.

For even amid increasingly desperate attempts by managers to save money, our political leaders continued their compulsive habit of expanding the range of services we could not afford. And they are still there.

During the recent federal election campaign, each party tried to outbid the others by promising new health services. So we needed to have free dental care, a national long-term care strategy, the end of private nursing homes over time, and much more.

Essentially, this election was an attempt to buy votes by hanging some shiny new trinkets. I estimate the overall cost of these health care promises to be around $ 100 billion.

But how do you find this money? In part, by letting the most basic services wither on the vine.

This is one of the reasons it may take longer to get an ambulance to your door than to have a pizza delivered. Vital services are strained beyond breaking point.

But there is another part of the story. Cabinet ministers in Canada, both federal and provincial, often have very limited mandates in the portfolios assigned to them.

In the 26 years between 1991 and 2017, the BC Ministry of Health had 16 different ministers, an average of 19 months per minister.

In such a limited mandate, most ministers never master all of their responsibilities. They are easily distracted by the crisis of the moment or hurtful stories in the media.

What they grasp is the need to create good news, now, tomorrow and the next day. The search for an inheritance takes precedence over competent but unspectacular management, because the latter requires time, and time which you do not have.

And so the long descent continues, punctuated by political frivolities and men like Ian Weir and Chuck Blakey, panting in pain or dying on the kitchen floor.

© Colonist of the time of copyright


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