NDP leader Ryan Meili touted his party’s plan to build a new mental health emergency room in Prince Albert, and reiterated plans to build a new hospital and bridge if elected on Oct. 26.
The new mental health ER is one of four the NDP has pledged to build in Saskatchewan. Meili said too many Prince Albert residents are being sent Saskatoon for treatment, or turned away completely because there aren’t enough resources.
“You might as well be telling people, ‘maybe we can help you next year or the year after,’” Meili said while flanked by Prince Albert Carlton candidate Troy Parenteau and incumbent Prince Albert Northcote MLA Nicole Rancourt. “It’s so frustrating for families, (and) heartbreaking for people who are ready to make a change. They see someone, try to get the help they need, and instead get turned away.”
Meili accused the Saskatchewan Party of letting Prince Albert voters down since coming to power in 2007. He said an NDP government would increase investment in the city for areas like mental health and addictions treatment.
So far, the party has pledged $5-million to develop a new suicide prevention strategy, along with a $10-million increase for addictions treatment. The NDP has also promised to fund an opioid and crystal meth addiction recovery strategy.
“An NDP government will invest,” Meili told reporters during a quick Saturday afternoon press conference. “It believes in Saskatchewan, and it is always willing to put people first.”
Kara Thorpe, a Prince Albert mother of three, spoke at the press conference in support of the NDP plan. Thorpe said two of her children have serious mental health challenges, and the lack of services in Prince Albert means she often has to travel to Saskatoon so they can receive care.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to be told to pop my kid into a car and drive two hours to find out that the Dubé Centre (the Irene and Leslie Dubé Centre for Mental Health) in Saskatoon is also full,” she said.
A provincial auditor’s report from 2018 said mental health and addictions clients were getting good quality treatment in Prince Albert. However, auditor Judy Ferguson also wrote that the demand for those services far exceeded the supply, and many patients were not receiving care in a timely manner.
Ferguson made a number of recommendations to improve the efficiency of mental health and addictions services. The list included suggestions to work with the Ministry of Social Services on improving access to housing, and finding more effective ways to decrease the number of clients who do not show up for scheduled appointments. According to Prince Albert Parkland Health Region (PAPHR) data, some treatment programs had no-show rates as high as 39 per cent.
Following Ferguson’s report, PAPHR vice-president of community and primary care Brett Enns told the Daily Herald they were looking at a number of ways to improve their efficiency. However, even if those plans worked, he said, demand would likely still exceed capacity.
The Prince Albert Parkland Health Region was spending roughly $13.2-million annually on mental health and addictions programing when Ferguson released her report. That was the second highest amount of per capita funding among any of the province’s health regions.
The provincial government’s 2020-21 budget included $435-million for mental health and addictions services. That was a $33-million increase over the year before.
Roughly $1.7-million of that spending went towards creating 28 new detox beds in Prince Albert, Regina, Saskatoon, and North Battleford. Another $3-million was used to create new residential support beds for intensive mental health patients who were transitioning back into the community. The Ministry of Health argued that those new beds would help free up hospital space for incoming patients.
The budget also included a one-time funding boost of $1.25-million to support suicide prevention, $1.3-million to develop intensive supports for children and youth with complex mental health needs, $400,000 to establish a provincial Rapid Access to Addiction Medicine clinic (RAAM) in North Battleford, and nearly $1.4-million to build a 20-bed specialized crystal methamphetamine inpatient treatment centre in Estevan.
Rural and Remote Health Minister Warren Kaeding said in a press release that the Estevan centre would treat patients from across the province, with 15 of the 20 beds devoted to patients with crystal meth addictions, and the remaining five going towards other addictions treatment needs.
The budget also included $1.35-million in federal funding to recruit and train more health care professionals to work with patients who have opioid or crystal meth addictions.
Mental health and addictions spending accounts for roughly 7.5 per cent of the province’s health budget.
Meili says toll bridge debate best left up to city council
NDP leader Ryan Meili also reiterated plans to build a second bridge in Prince Albert if his party wins the 2020 provincial election.
Meili told reporters the Saskatchewan Party had plenty of opportunities to do so under Scott Moe, but failed to make a firm commitment.
“Now is the time to be building things like this, and not be going down the road that the Sask. Party always does,” Meili said on Saturday.
“As soon as we’re elected, we’ll get to work and get our highways department to work on a plan,” he added.
In 2017, Prince Albert city council began exploring the possibility of charging a toll to cross Diefenbaker Bridge, with the proceeds going towards building a second bridge. The move required permission from the provincial government, something Highways and Infrastructure Minister Greg Ottenbreit refused to give.
Ottenbreit sent a letter to city council last January saying the government was not interested in such a plan, and advised council that any attempt to implement a toll without provincial approval would lead to a loss in Highway Urban Connector Program funding.
When asked on Saturday about the possibility of charging a toll to cross Diefenbaker Bridge, Meili said it was outside of their scope.
“I think that would be a municipal discussion, from our point of view,” he explained. “But this is a bridge that needs to be built, and we’ll move right ahead.”
A second bridge is expected to cost between $120-million and $153-million, according to a Prince Albert and Area Second Bridge River Crossing Study released in 2013.