Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Privatizing health care, piece by piece


It now appears certain that Premier Brad Wall and his Saskatchewan Party government have decided to stop being so timid about the privatization of our province's health system.

Sources say the Wall government is now in serious discussions with business and health regions about contracting out or privatizing all services in our publicly funded health system that do not provide direct patient care. It looks as though many of our fellow citizens who work in maintenance, housekeeping, food services, laboratories, diagnostic imaging and health records in health facilities across our province are going to have their jobs taken over by private sector companies and their employees.
For the past six years, citizens have been lulled into a false sense of security, thinking their premier was not going to take a decidedly private sector approach to our publicly funded and publicly administered health care system. We were wrong, and the evidence is mounting.

Prior to the 2011 election, Wall introduced a new model of constructing and operating a nursing home in Saskatoon. In the past, the province paid 65 per cent of the capital construction cost of a new nursing home and the health region or the non-profit nursing home affiliated with the region raised the remainder. In the case of Amicus, capital construction costs were guaranteed by taxpayers. Amicus was able to negotiate an agreement whereby its nursing home would not have to be affiliated with the health region, enabling employee's wages and benefits to be out of line with the health region's and its affiliated organizations.

A couple of years later, the Saskatoon Health Region brought in Surgical Centres Inc., a Calgarybased company, to build a day surgery and medical diagnostic facility. The Saskatoon Health Region now has a contract with this company to provide day surgery for pediatric dentistry, orthopaedics and ophthalmology patients.

And now we have a recent decision by the Wall government that all hospital laundry services will be contracted out to K-Bro Linen Systems Inc, the largest owneroperator of laundry processing facilities in Canada. This company is going to build, own and operate a new plant in Regina that will serve the entire province and replace publicly owned facilities in Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, Regina, Weyburn, Yorkton and Saskatoon. Long-term care facilities will still have their own laundry facilities, but who knows how long that will last? This company provides laundry services for these facilities in other parts of Canada.

We are told that this deal will save approximately $9.3 million over 10 years by lowering operating and capital costs. While transportation costs will increase as laundry is trucked across the province, the company will save money on wages and benefits as employees will be paid less than unionized laundry workers employed by our health regions.

There are other examples of the government moving what should be publicly owned health care facilities into the private sector, particularly with the recent announcement by Wall that the new nursing home in his Swift Current constituency will most likely be built and owned by a private sector developer. It also appears that the new mental health hospital in North Battleford will be privately owned. Those of us with long memories know how that worked out when former premier Grant Devine did the same thing with the Parkridge Nursing home in Saskatoon. That experiment wound up costing taxpayers over $80 million by the time the Saskatoon Health Region bought the facility a few years ago. Taxpayers would have saved tens of millions of dollars had the facility been owned by the public from the start.

No doubt some will argue that Wall's latest foray into health care privatization will save citizens' money and that it is a good way to get rid of highly paid unionized employees. There is little doubt people who will work in these jobs, should Wall get his way, will be paid less and likely won't end up with a pension should they make a career of it. But to argue that this will save the taxpayers' money is a mug's game, as any margins that are realized in reduced labour costs will be taken up in profits for company shareholders.

Most citizens want a Saskatchewan where people can earn a living wage, buy a house, educate their kids and retire with a pension. This is not too much to ask for, but it is not where our province is headed.


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