The former top bureaucrat in Nova Scotia’s health department says the government is balancing the books at the expense of other programs.
“The bottom line was to make sure that you had a balanced budget, regardless of the impact,” Kevin McNamara, former deputy minister, said.
McNamara is responding to a Global News investigation of a trend in hospital infrastructure spending since 2009. The results show that despite crumbling hospital infrastructure across Nova Scotia, the Liberal government is underspending on bricks and mortar by tens of millions of dollars.
Since 2013, when the Liberals came to power, there has been a significant drop in the amount put towards hospital infrastructure. In total, the government’s three budgets promised to spend $146 million on hospital infrastructure, however, only $72.6 million of that was spent.
The 50 per cent shortfall in spending comes in conjunction with a number of hospital and health facility projects languishing on the capital plan for years. Since 2011, renovations and expansions have been promised in Shelburne, Aberdeen, and the South Shore, however, there’s been little movement in the proceeding five years.
“What I see in looking through the numbers is that there’s been a drastic reduction,” McNamara said.
Promised projects on hold and under review
Health Minister Leo Glavine says the slow spending in recent years is because projects that were promised by the previous NDP government are all under review by the new health authority.
He says once the review is complete, the projects that are needed will get done.
“We’ll move the money to the areas that will need an upgrade, a refurbishment, an expansion,” Glavine said.
Nova Scotians in Pugwash and Guysborough have been promised new facilities or upgrades for the last four years, and while the government keeps the projects on the Capital Plan, it’s possible those or others could be cancelled.
“We do have some redundancy of services, and we don’t have best practices in some areas,” Glavine said.
If a project still goes ahead, it’s possible what it delivers on could change. Glavine said what services go in hospitals and what belongs elsewhere is also being examined.
Budgeted items were meant to be spent
Looking at the projected yearly spending for new health care facilities, McNamara said it’s clear the money was meant to be spent. However, because the department has been operating with a limited yearly budget increase, he says it’s had to find savings within the budget to make up for escalating costs out of the government’s control.
“Food costs go up, your heating costs are going up, all of those other things are still increasing, and somehow you’ve got to absorb that within a zero budget,” McNamara said.
It’s rare that budgets come in exactly on target, however, the amount by which the Liberal government is straying from its plan is more than how much the previous NDP government did. The New Democrats underspent by an average of 10 per cent on hospital infrastructure compared to the Liberals spending 50 per cent of what they had originally planned for.
Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Baillie is accusing the Liberals of trying to score political points by announcing projects but never going through with them.
“They are putting numbers in the budget they have no intentions of using,” Baillie said. “If that’s the case, then really this is just politics, and it’s playing politics with our health care system.”
NDP health critic Dave Wilson says the numbers show the Liberals are balancing the budget “on the backs of health care and health care infrastructure.”
There’s no clear timeline for when current projects will get the final yes or no from the government.