Non profits on the chopping block

Health Minister Doug Graham's off-the-cuff announcement that he intends to wind-down some non-profits that are solely concerned with advocacy, rather than services, strikes us as a trial balloon: it's intended to gauge the public's reception before he makes a firm commitment.

Health Minister Doug Graham’s off-the-cuff announcement that he intends to wind-down some non-profits that are solely concerned with advocacy, rather than services, strikes us as a trial balloon: it’s intended to gauge the public’s reception before he makes a firm commitment.

Graham hasn’t specified which groups would get the axe. But we can’t help but draw the same conclusion as the NDP Opposition about one non-profit that seems to be a likely target: the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition. If that is the case, we hope he reconsiders.

The coalition does produce a pamphlet that helps connect the needy to relevant social services. But much of its work is preoccupied with advocacy, and of a type that could be considered embarrassing to the health minister, as it shines a light on how the territory’s down-and-outs are not always well-served by his department.

The minister insists that some groups must be cut in order to provide funding to those providing important services. Perhaps that’s true. But why restrict such a review to the Health Department? After all, as the NDP Opposition has noted, all sorts of groups receive advocacy funding, including the chambers of commerce and the Yukon Chamber of Mines.

Imagine if the territory’s mining companies continued to receive hand-outs to provide advocacy for themselves, while some of the territory’s most vulnerable residents did not. On what basis would that be fair?

But perhaps a broader review of Yukon’s hodgepodge of non-profits is in order. After all, it’s entirely conceivable that there’s a more efficient means of delivering services to the public than the current arrangement of scattering funds amongst many small groups of do-gooders.

Some groups spend a disproportionate amount of time filling out grant applications, funding requests and other paperwork needed to ensure their future survival. Maybe there’s a clever way to have non-profits pool resources to cover off these tasks, allowing them to spend more time working on their mandates. Maybe some groups should be merged. Maybe others should be shuttered if they aren’t functioning well. And maybe some tasks would be better accomplished if it were simply taken on by the government.

But we suspect the government, by and large, likes the current arrangement for a few reasons. Cutting many cheques for many groups creates the appearance of generosity, in a way that cutting one bigger cheque for a single group does not. And leaving thorny social issues in the hands of non-profits frees the government of having to address those issues directly itself.

The Yukon Party is oddly selective in its appeals to fiscal prudence. This is, after all, a government that openly brags about how much money it has cadged off Ottawa to spend. (Another $1-billion budget!) Yet ministers always manage to plead poverty they encounter projects they dislike.

They’ve been particularly reluctant to adopt a variety of proposals aimed at helping the territory’s homeless alcoholics. Never mind that a growing body of evidence suggests that it’s easier to dry out with a roof over your head, and that such schemes could ultimately save the government money. Also never mind even our Conservative federal government has come around to backing such projects in other cities. The idea still remains beyond the pale for the Yukon Party.

We can’t help but suspect this is largely because our ministers are unwilling to stare down an element within their conservative base that believes, as an article of faith, that addicts must learn to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

The anti-poverty coalition has a knack for digging up inconvenient reminders that such service gaps exist. Snuffing them out would be viewed by some Yukoners as petty and mean – but how many anti-poverty supporters voted for the Yukon Party during the last election? Very few.

It’s also plausible that Graham’s cull of non-profits is motivated by an awareness that his department’s inexorably rising costs will need to be trimmed at some point in the future, as transfer payments from Ottawa level off. That’s a real concern – but defunding a few small non-profits wouldn’t come close to solving the problem.

The anti-poverty coalition received $44,000 this year, up from $25,000 last year. That may seem like a lot to a family’s income, but it’s a drop in the bucket of the Health Department’s budget, which is worth $337.6 million – nearly one-third of the territory’s total budget of $1.083 billion.

If Graham wants to look at real measures to tame his department’s budget, he’d be smart to dust-off a government review conducted in 2008. That report warns that, unless action is taken, the Health Department could face a revenue shortfall of $250 million by 2018.

Among its recommendations is to have nurses perform more doctor-like duties. This is happening, albeit slowly – after many years of talk, the Yukon only recently licensed its first nurse practitioner.

The report also recommends introducing a variety of fees, co-payments and premiums – all things that voters hate. Last year Graham warned that rates at long-term care facilities will rise, although he hasn’t made that happen yet.

Other recommendations the territory hasn’t touched include introducing deductibles and co-payments for seniors’ health benefits, as is done in the provinces; bringing in user fees for medical travel; and introducing health-care premiums.

All these measures would help control Graham’s department’s costs. They would also require having an adult discussion that would inevitably prove unpopular with his supporters, which makes us suspect that it won’t be happening if the government can help it.