Health care reform committee struck

The Yukon government is trying some quiet diplomacy to bring the opposition parties on-side with plans to reform the health-care system.

The Yukon government is trying some quiet diplomacy to bring the opposition parties on-side with plans to reform the health-care system.

Wednesday, a new committee staffed by the leaders of Yukon’s three parties, Health Minister Glenn Hart and others met for the first time.

At the meeting, Premier Dennis Fentie and Hart asked the opposition to prepare their own recommendations on how to bring the territory’s rising health-care costs under control.

Nearly two years ago the Yukon government was warned that spiraling health costs, if left unchecked, would produce an annual funding gap of $250,000 million by 2018.

Bringing these costs under control will require tough choices, the report warned at the time. It offered 43 different recommendations.

Hart has promised that the most controversial, the reintroduction of health premiums, won’t happen under his government.

He has yet to publicly indicate which recommendations he will adopt. But Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said the territory plans to start with public wellness campaigns, based on the hope that if Yukoners took better care of themselves, they would become less-expensive liabilities as they age.

A wellness strategy is in the works. And the government is even toying with the idea of rebranding the Department of Health and Social Services as the Department of Health and Wellness Services, said Mitchell.

Both Mitchell and the NDP’s Steve Cardiff hailed the Yukon Party’s decision to bring them into the decision-making process through the new committee as unprecedented.

Rather than hold a news conference to announce the new committee, Hart instead took out a two-page newspaper advertisement on Wednesday. He has now declined several requests for an interview about the territory’s plans to control health-care costs.

The advertisement deals with several criticisms of the territory’s health plans in a glancing fashion. It acknowledges that the Yukon Hospital Corporation has been put into the construction business, with plans to build new hospitals in Watson Lake and Dawson City, because it allows the territory to build these projects with borrowed money.

But “to suggest that the Hospital Corporation’s debt is hidden is a non-starter: the Corporation is required to report its financial state at year end in the same way as the government or any other Crown corporation,” the advertisement states.

These new regional hospitals will become necessary as new mines go online, the advertisement states.

Thank boomers for ballooning health-care costs. As Yukon’s population ages it will consume more pricey drugs and require more expensive medical procedures.

And as health care here improves, more of the elderly are now staying in the territory, rather than moving Outside.

On top of these demographic challenges, Yukon residents pay among the highest prices in the country for pharmaceutical drugs.

The territory is considering buying drugs in bulk to save money, said Mitchell. It’s in talks with western provinces to pool resources in this scheme, but these efforts have proven slow-moving, he said.

There’s also talk about a national pharmaceutical-purchasing program, but these efforts have run into resistance from the powerful drug lobby, said Cardiff.

Yukon’s elderly also enjoy some of the most generous extended benefits in the country, but it looks unlikely that the government will tamper with this soon. The advertisement offers the assurance that “maintaining a high level of service for seniors as they age is nonnegotiable for our government.”

Next month, the government will hold an “Aging Well Expo,” featuring Outside physicians and academics, with the aim of learning how to improve the government’s care for the elderly. The conference is not connected to any cost-cutting efforts, said organizer Kelly Cooper.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.