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BC government to health authorities: delay your planning

B.C. health ministry planners have instructed officials at regional health authorities to delay preparation of their service plans by two months this year.

Assistant deputy minister Stephen Brown made the instruction in an e-mail sent this morning to clarify an earlier message that had left the impression with at least some that the six health authorities were not to prepare service plans at all for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

“The ministry has decided at this point health authorities are not required to submit a Health Authority Service Plan,” said one recipient quoting the original e-mail from the Health Authorities Division. The message, received earlier this week, said the ministry would provide further direction in February, the source said.

That left some wondering if the government was planning to have service plans for the authorities written inside the ministry instead. In recent years the authorities' plans have at times been a source of some embarrassment for the government.

“I have been asked to provide clarity regarding the expectations related to service planning for the coming fiscal year,” wrote Brown today. “My intent was simply to say that direction regarding the service plans would be given in February rather than at this point in time (ie: December). To be clear, service plans will be expected from each health authority for the 2009/10 fiscal year. Sorry for any confusion in this regard.”

The delay is because the ministry does not yet know how much money the authorities are likely to get, said ministry spokesperson Bernadette Murphy in an e-mail. “As a result of the current challenges in the economy, it's taking a little longer this year to define what the allocations might be,” she wrote. “The discussion is being deferred until February which will still allow health authorities time to plan accordingly. Given the upcoming holidays, the deferment is insignificant.”

Health minister George Abbott is on holiday until December 23 and unavailable for an interview.

NDP health critic Adrian Dix said the delay in planning is irresponsible. “They want the whole process delayed,” he said, noting that details are now even less likely to be released before the May 12 election. “Presumably what this means is not that they won't be planning, but that they won't be planning on paper in a way that will embarrass the government.”

Last year Dix said a Fraser Health Authority service plan showed the agency was being forced to cut service, increase charges and lengthen wait lists to make up a budget shortfall. Two months ago the opposition charged the government was “hiding” the 2008-2009 plans by not releasing them to the public. They still have not been released.

The delay on the 2009-2010 plans adds to the confusion, said Dix. “What it tells me is there's more chaos ahead,” he said.

There is ongoing speculation the government is working towards dismantling the health authorities, following the lead of Alberta which this year replaced 12 authorities with one central agency.

February's B.C. throne speech promised “Better co-ordination of patient services across the Lower Mainland will reduce administration costs . . . Integrated approaches to health human resources training and recruitment, data collection, procurement and services will be implemented.”

Last week the health ministry announced a new Shared Services Organization would save the government $150 million by having the health authorities make joint purchases. No doubt there would be even larger savings to be found by merging health authorities.

But Dix said he doubts the government would restructure the authorities before the election. “Anything like that would be an admission that the Premier's vision has failed,” he said. “Clearly the health authorities as created by the Premier are not working very well . . . The Premier said he was going to bring new management and instead he's brought chaos.”

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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