The provincial NDP plans to put the spotlight on rural healthcare and affordability when MLAs return to the provincial legislature this fall, and they’ve added two new critic portfolios to make sure it stays there.
NDP leader Carla Beck and the rest of the party caucus was in Prince Albert on Thursday for a series of meetings with local leaders. Beck unveiled the new critic positions during a press conference outside Victoria Hospital on Wednesday. Regina Rosemont MLA Trent Wotherspoon will oversee affordability, while Saskatoon Eastview MLA Matt Love will take on Rural and Remote Health Care.
“Saskatchewan people need someone going to bat for Saskatchewan people,” Beck said during Wednesday’s announcement.
“We know how important it is to hold an out-of-touch government to account, and we are ready.”
Wotherspoon, the new Affordability Critic, said province’s decision to give residents a $500 rebate shows the government knows people are struggling to make ends meet, but said that injection doesn’t go far enough.
Instead, the NDP wants to see reductions to power and energy rates, and a rebate extension that would see parents receive a $500 cheque for each child in their family.
“People deserve that one-time support, but they need more,” Wotherspoon said. “They need to address the ongoing costs. This is a government with a billion dollar surplus. Things like the massive hikes to power and energy need to be cancelled. That’s simply not (good) for people in Saskatchewan at this time.”
Wotherspoon added that more attention needs to be paid to how those rebates are administered. He’s worried that vulnerable Saskatchewan residents will be shut-out of any support at all, and said that’s one of many reasons the NPD needs to keep the issue front and centre with a new Affordability Critic portfolio.
“This is really a signal to Saskatchewan people that we get the reality that they’re facing, with the crushing cost of living that they’re experiencing,” he said. That’s in real contrast to the current government that has left people high and dry with no real relief.”
The provincial government announced a four-point affordability plan in August. During the announcement, Premier Scott Moe said the affordability plan, the $500 rebate cheques, and other measures like keeping the small business tax rate at zero would make sure everyone benefited from Saskatchewan’s growth.
Wotherspoon said the government can afford to do more.
“The dollars are rolling in (thanks to) windfall revenues for the province of Saskatchewan,” he said. “It’s immediate. We need to be providing the relief.”
New NDP Rural and Remote Health Critic Matt Love said he’s already familiar with many of the issues rural residents are concerned about due to his time as Seniors Critic.
Love said seniors in rural areas already face a challenge in accessing healthcare personnel and facilities, and staff shortages in areas like psychiatry and nursing will only make things worse.
In July, a Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN) survey showed 83 per cent of nurses reported vacant positions in their units. A year ago, that number was at 40 per cent.
On Sept. 7, the provincial government announced a roughly $60 million plan to hire and retain more healthcare professionals, but Love said that won’t be enough.
“It’s taken years for us to get to this bad situation that we’re in now, and it’s not going to be a quick fix,” Love said. “The solutions will include, yes, recruitment, but also retention and valuing of our healthcare workforce that’s absent under Scott Moe’s leadership.”
During a press conference to announce the plan in September, provincial Health Minister Paul Merriman told reporters health regions across Canada were facing similar recruitment and retention problems.
“We understand that there are some issues,” Merriman said during the press conference. “We had some very direct, honest feedback from healthcare workers, and that’s where this plan comes from.”
MLAs return to the Legislature on Oct. 26, 2022.