Regina Leader Post Editorial – Sask Gov’t tackles boom’s demands

This article appeared in the October 24, 2013 edition of the Regina Leader Post:

 

Editorial: Sask. gov’t tackles boom’s demands
Health care and education top Sask. party ‘to do’ list

 

Few people in this province would likely have believed in 2007 that Saskatchewan’s population would surge by an astonishing 100,000 people over the next six years.

There also would have been understandably healthy skepticism over any belief that an economic boom that began in 2005 still would be going strong in 2013, given the province’s history of boom-and-bust cycles. Or that Regina and Saskatoon would be among Canada’s growth-leading cities.

Even the optimists in Premier Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party government – then beginning its first term – would scarcely have believed the good fortune that lay ahead … or the daunting challenges that growth would present.

Dealing with the demands created by the boom has become the Wall government’s focus of late. Health, education and infrastructure were the top priorities in Wednesday’s throne speech heralding the start of today’s fall sitting of the legislature.

The 19-page document – Meeting the Challenges of Growth – is less a vision statement than a nuts-and-bolts plan to address a wide range of pressing issues. It’s the right approach. Let’s focus on the practical tasks of fixing health care, education and roads.

There are some important new initiatives in health care, where the government has been feeling the heat over some services failing to meet demand.

On crowded emergency rooms, for example, the province says high-use patients – some with addictions or mental health issues – “repeatedly show up” in ERs when they’d be better served elsewhere. The province plans to pilot programs in Regina and Saskatoon to identify and divert such patients away from ERs to “appropriate” services.

The province will also expand new 24-hour emergency centres in rural areas to four more communities, including Shaunavon and Canora.

We also like plans to introduce “house calls” by doctors, nurse practitioners and other health providers to attend seniors with “complex” health issues. Supporting frail seniors in their own homes is not only preferable for them, it’s also a smart use of resources, as hospitals and care homes are much more expensive.

However, it’s inevitable that some seniors will need a care home – and the experience is not always a good one.

Admitting it “must do better” on longterm senior care, following a review this past summer that identified some serious concerns, the government plans to amend legislation to allow for the public release of personal care home inspection reports by health ministry staff. It’s a good move that will not only shine a light on substandard homes, but also provide crucial information for seniors and their families choosing a care home.

On education, the throne speech repeats a number of previous initiatives, including Tuesday’s announcement of nine new joint-use elementary schools. New – and refreshing – are plans for “a wide-ranging consultation with teachers, administrators, parents and students” on student achievement. Input is sorely needed on things like the province’s confusing plans for testing of students.

Amid the throne speech’s extensive recitation of ongoing multi million-dollar highway projects are a couple of surprises – possible use of a public-private partnership to build the south Regina bypass and plans to twin Highways 6 and 39 between Regina and Estevan. We eagerly await more details, though we recognize that both projects are likely some years away from being started.

Speaking of the long-term, the throne speech says former University of Saskatchewan president Peter MacKinnon soon will release his report on the idea of a provincial heritage fund in which a portion of resource revenues will be saved to “become a permanent source of wealth for current and future generations.”

It’s a good idea, but one that will require some strong fiscal discipline given the ongoing demands on government finances. Away from meeting the demands of the boom, there’s one more good piece of news – the government plans to introduce “tougher penalties for drinking and driving” this session. Given the horrible carnage caused by alcohol on our roads, stiffer penalties are warranted. That said, punishment is only one part of the answer – equal weight must be given to education.

More detailed than some past throne speeches, this one may not be particularly visionary, but its practical approach is what’s needed in challenging times.

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