Nova Scotia Tory leader Houston focuses campaign on fixes to health care

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Nova Scotians are heading to the polls on August 17 after Premier Iain Rankin dissolved the legislature to kick off the province's 41st election campaign and the first summer vote since 2003. Ross Lord reports on what to expect. – Jul 17, 2021

Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston argued Monday he’s the politician likeliest to fix shortcomings in the province’s health system, in a campaign where he’s casting himself as a Red Tory unafraid to spend public dollars.

Houston appeared at a news conference with Michael Nickerson, the business manager of the paramedics union, and told reporters it’s often quicker to get a pizza deliveredin the province than to receive ambulance services.

Read more: What you need to know with Nova Scotia’s 41st election campaign now here

The 51-year-old chartered accountant has been basing his party’s campaign on the theme of deficit-financed increases in the health budget as a key to post-pandemic recovery.

“A year before talk of the election was in the air, we were talking about health care,” he said. “We understand as a party that there are investments required, and we understand this province will run deficits for a few years because we … need to invest in infrastructure.”

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Nickerson, with the International Union of Operating Engineers, appeared by video conference and said that on Sunday there were 12 reports of two or fewer ambulances available in different counties across the province, a situation the union refers to as “code critical” because it could lead to a shortfall for some communities.

The union official also said over the weekend 30 out of 88 of the province’s ambulances were out of service because staff were unavailable to operate them. Emergency Health Services, a company that manages and operates the province’s ambulance system, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nickerson thanked Houston for inviting him to appear but said his presence at the news conference doesn’t mean his union is endorsing the Tory policies ahead of the Aug. 17 provincial election.

Houston said last year that if he wins power, his government will add $127 million to the health budget, and that improvements in primary care will help relieve pressure on ambulances, as will his party’s plan to add 2,500 long-term care rooms.

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The ambulance shortfall is often a sign of other issues in the health system, Houston said Monday, such as overloaded emergency rooms that force paramedics to remain lined up at hospitals.

The political leader also said a Tory government would consider increasing the emergency services budget once his party sees data on call volumes and staffing levels. “We will make the investments that are necessary, because everything builds on that,” he said.

The NDP also focused its Monday announcement on health care, emphasizing that it would end fees for use of ambulances.

Party leader Gary Burrill met with Danica Pettipas, who said in a news release she was shocked when she received four ambulance bills for travel between the Halifax Infirmary, the COVID-19 unit and a recovery hospital during her illness with COVID-19. She said two COVID-related ambulance fees were waived, but two did not qualify to be dropped.

Burrill said an NDP government would permanently eliminate ambulance fees for all Nova Scotians, distinguishing his party from the Progressive Conservatives on this issue. Houston said he doesn’t agree with ending fees, as it might lead people to use ambulances simply to avoid expensive hospital parking.

Meanwhile, Liberal Leader Iain Rankin focused on economic issues on Monday, announcing that a re-elected Liberal government would invest $45 million over five years to renew a program that encourages businesses to invest in clean technologies.

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He made the announcement at Den Haan Greenhouses in Lawrencetown, N.S., where the company used a similar program to purchase energy-efficient LED lighting for crops.

In March, the Liberal government released a report on the province’s ambulance system by U.S.-based Fitch and Associates. The study, submitted in 2019, found that ambulances are spending too much time in non-productive, non-emergency activities. Health Minister Zach Churchill said at the time that many recommendations were being implemented, adding that the data in the report does not suggest a blanket increase in wait times across the province, though challenges remain.

When the legislature was dissolved and the election called Saturday, the Liberals held 24 of 51 seats, followed by the Progressive Conservatives with 17. The New Democrats had five seats, and there were three Independents and two vacancies. This election features races in 55 ridings because the province decided last year to revive four “protected” seats in districts where the government wants to increase the participation and representation of Acadians and African-Nova Scotians.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2021.

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