The leaders of Nova Scotia’s Opposition parties weren’t impressed with record government spending on health care for a second year in a row.
Nova Scotia’s 2023-24 budget of $14.4 billion includes $6.5 billion for health care. Finance Minister Allan MacMaster said the 22% increase in health care spending over the past two years is designed to “fix” health care. MacMaster acknowledged that fix will take at least a few years to achieve with deficit budgets projected until 2027.
Opposition leaders said this budget does not improve access to health care for thousands of Nova Scotians and does little to help people on fixed incomes struggling to cope with the rising cost of living.
“This government’s budget does nothing to help attach Nova Scotians to a family doctor,” said Liberal leader Zach Churchill. “It does nothing to make life more affordable for Nova Scotians or to address the housing crisis. It also freezes income assistance at a time when everything is getting more expensive. This budget misses all marks, while growing our provincial debt at a pace not seen since the 1980s.”
With revenue from corporate income tax at an all-time high ($700 million), as well as a $250 million increase in HST revenue from goods and services that have seen prices rise with inflation, NDP leader Claudia Chender called this budget “a missed opportunity.”
“When we talk to front-line health care workers, they say many of the people who are coming to hospital are there because of challenges related to poverty and housing,” Chender said. “Those are the social determinants of health. That’s what this budget had an unprecedented opportunity to address, and it missed. And this budget also missed some front-line health care providers. I think the expansion of the MOST program for nurses is great, but paramedics also need to be in that group.”
The MOST or More Opportunity for Skilled Trades program offers a refund on the first $50,000 of income earned by workers under the age of 30 in skilled trades and the film industry.
The budget expanded that incentive to nurses under the age of 30 to try and retain more graduates. But there are currently 200 vacancies for paramedics in Nova Scotia — they have been moving elsewhere for higher pay or leaving the profession — and that’s why Chender suggests the refund should be expanded to include this group.
Income assistance vs targeted assistance
For the second straight year, there was no increase in income assistance or welfare payments. The Houston government said it prefers to make “targeted” investments, which include seniors care grants and assistance with home heating costs.
In a scrum with reporters following the budget address, Premier Tim Houston defended his government’s decision to freeze income assistance rates and not build any new public housing.
“We know there are number of Nova Scotians who are struggling,” Houston said. “We have invested in a number of initiatives. The Child Tax Benefit has gone up. We have invested in 1,000 more rental supplements. We are addressing day care expenses. There are more options to support people with their heating bills. So, if you look at the full total, we are supporting Nova Scotians, but we always want to do more.”
Alec Stratford with the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers said the targeted approach isn’t enough.
“The targeted approach has been done by every government and it does not substantially meet needs with the cost of living going up, as well as the cost of housing. The targeted approach does not come nearly close enough to what we need to see,” Stratford said.
Christine Saulnier, director with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said she was “disappointed in this budget.”
“The scale and scope of investment that’s needed to face the crisis in the cost of living, in housing, and in poverty required a significant increase in income assistance payments, in the Nova Scotia Child Tax Benefit, and the Affordable Living Tax Benefit, as well as actual investments in building affordable housing outside the market,” Saulnier said.
“What’s happening here is this government is leaving Nova Scotians to the marketplace and not building the social safety net needed to tackle the crisis.”
The president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union was grateful for $47 million in funding increases the government has made to address increasing student enrolment and inflationary pressures related to contracts, insurance, and electricity. But Ryan Lutes said the NSTU had hoped to see a teacher recruitment plan in the budget to address what he called a growing and “frustrating” shortage of teachers. Also missing was any money for implementing a school lunch program.
“Our classrooms reflect society,” Lutes said. “It’s kids coming to school hungry and more students with mental health needs. We had hoped to see some targeted funding for that. Really this budget is leaving our most vulnerable students behind.”
NS, leading the country in child poverty for yet another year. Good job.
Zach Churchill should join a comedy club. He is partly responsible for the mess in Long Term Care and healthcare and yet not one reporter has asked him what he did less than 2 years ago when he was a cabinet minister in the Liberal government. The media should ignore him as he has zero credibility.