Saskatchewan’s creeping healthcare privatization – An interview with Michael Butler

In response to increasing public concerns in Saskatchewan over the privatization of hospital laundry services and the provincial government’s push for private MRI clinics, The Council of Canadians and the CUPE Health Council have organized a five city tour against the privatization of healthcare in Saskatchewan.

Woodrow Lloyd and Tommy Douglas brought universal health care to Saskatchewan… editor Gerard Di Trolio spoke with Michael Butler, National Health Care Campaigner at the Council of Canadians, about what the Brad Wall government is doing to health care in Saskatchewan.

RF: Would you describe the reforms of the Brad Wall government to the health care system in Saskatchewan as a frontal assault or creeping privatization?

MB: We’re seeing increased creeping privatization across the province in all health care sectors. What’s happening is Brad Wall knows that people value universal health care in its heartland of Saskatchewan. There’s been backdoor cuts and policy and legislative changes. The founding principle of medicare – need and equity – trumping ability to pay is being eroded.

RF: Was this something that Wall introduced once he was in power or was he openly campaigning on these kind of changes to Saskatchewan’s health care system?

MB: Wall is a master of doubletalk. Simon Enoch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has a good piece about what Wall has said in the past and what he is doing now. This isn’t something he campaigned on because people understand with health care it’s about values and choices. Will we put our communities first over profit? And what we’re seeing with Brad Wall is profits being put first over fairness and facts. What he’s doing is divesting from the system, and shunning the government’s responsibility in multiple ways. We’re not seeing real leadership on the health care file in Saskatchewan, leadership that invests in its people. We need leadership that will create long term public solutions that puts everyone on a fair footing.

RF: What are the main ways that the Wall government is undermining universal health care in Saskatchewan right now?

MB: There’s a couple different ways. We’re seeing the P3 [public-private partnership] issue with SaskBuilds which is put in charge of infrastructure, increasingly using P3s. So we’ve seen in North Battleford, a proposal to build a P3 hospital. They’ve really learned nothing from such other projects like the McGill superhospital which is a continuing debacle, it’s 50 percent over the original cost. There was the P3 hospital in Brampton which ran $200 million over budget. These partnerships aren’t partnerships at all – they’re privatization.

We’ve also seen the issues around the outsourcing of laundry services. Well, what we know if it, because these deals are all done in secret, at best you see pages of redacted documents. This is putting profits before people. And we know that P3 hospitals, P3 hospital care, and P3 laundry services, deliver poorer quality, poorer wages. It’s part of the race to the bottom. These contracts are lengthy and you’re locked in. The risk falls upon the government. It’s a myth that the risk is with these P3 operators. This is at a time when we have historically low interest rates, and the government of Saskatchewan is going in the opposite direction. In fact, they’re taking advice from Partnerships B.C. on best practices. They spent $5.6 million on consulting fees on this. Partnerships B.C. is both an advisor and a P3 provider, so there’s a major conflict of interest in this. Public solutions aren’t on the table. Brad Wall is trying to undermine it.
…now Brad Wall is trying to undermine it.

The Auditor General in Saskatchewan found that risk assessments aren’t based on any empirical or historical evidence, found no reason for claims that the risk on public projects are six times higher than on P3s. If you look at the facts it’s just the opposite. The Ontario Auditor General came out not too long ago and said at least $8 billion was wasted through P3 projects in Ontario. What you have is a government that is trying to shed its responsibilities and move them into the private sector so they can look like they’re doing something innovative instead of taking the time, the effort, and the money to provide decent care whether you’re in Estevan or Prince Albert.

These services affect peoples’ health at the end of the day and you’re getting a lower quality of care for a higher price tag. It’s ideology that privatization can provide better than the public. These companies aren’t about providing the best level of care, they’re about the bottom line for their shareholders at the end of the day. It affects both the capital side – the quality of the buildings – and on the operating side – with understaffed departments, poorer training and poorer wages.

RF: What is going on with MRI clinics in the province?

MB: They’re opening the door to a really slippery slope with private MRI clinics. It would be foolish to say that wait times aren’t an issue. That’s an issue across Canada, not just Saskatchewan. The government is opening the door to MRI clinics where those with money can jump the queue. This has been shown to not increase access. Alberta is a good example where there were increased wait times, so they had to bring the MRI clinics back into the public system. There’s no financial savings. What you’re doing is inserting a conflict of interest into the system when it comes to services.

What we need to be doing is to invest in both urban and rural areas. What private MRI clinics have also shown is that they tend to poach doctors and technologists from the public system and in the case of Saskatchewan it would preclude the opening of MRI clinics in smaller centres. The private clinics will go to where they can make the most profit. There’s also questionable legality of what the Saskatchewan government doing with MRI clinics under the Canada Health Act. People in Saskatchewan and Canada value need over the ability to pay. There are solutions out there. They take real investment but they show real results and no one is left behind.

RF: How are health care workers affected by P3 projects and privatization?

MB: Look at the laundry services example. With what we do know, the stuff that hasn’t been redacted, we know it’s still a race to the bottom, 350 jobs lost. Whether it’s food services, or laundry services, or home care workers – it’s longer shifts, it’s less staff, it’s poorer wages. And those have results on the people that need these services. That’s money taken out of the community, a loss of good paying jobs that can get you a house and provide for your family, instead workers are put in a precarious place. It’s really mortgaging the future, not just for the patients but for the workers of Saskatchewan who deserve much better than these P3 contracts where it’s making money for financiers and shareholders who aren’t even living in Saskatchewan.

RF: How will what’s happening to health care funding at the federal level affect Saskatchewan?

And with what’s happening at the federal level – Harper cutting $42 billion to health care over the next ten years, as a result to the expiring of the health accord, Saskatchewan has already already lost $33.2 million in equalization payments under the Canada Health Transfer. That’s in 2014-2015. Over the next ten years it will be $1.37 billion.

So we’re seeing at the federal level the undermining of health care. And at the provincial level instead of saying this is a major problem, we’re seeing them parallel the federal government whether its through devotion to P3 projects, opening the door to private clinics, or something that’s on the horizon – there’s some legislation that would change the organ donor laws to, I believe, eventually open the door to private blood and plasma transfusions. The Wall government hasn’t said anything about this, but it’s a sweeping change of legislation and we know from the tainted blood scandal report that paid blood and plasma is unnecessary and very dangerous.

The Wall government is really marketizing and commodifying our health services. At the end of the day, what it really should be about is how can we preserve health as a right and not a privilege. This needs to be put before any ideology or profits.

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2 thoughts on “Saskatchewan’s creeping healthcare privatization – An interview with Michael Butler

  1. Pingback: Council of Canadians & CUPE health care tour concludes in Regina | Enjeux énergies et environnement

  2. Pingback: Fighting privatization in the heartland of medicare | Enjeux énergies et environnement

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