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Frustrations for NDP on health care, duty to consult issues

Daily Leg Update - Health Minister Paul Merriman fends off NDP attacks on “hush” memo; also, a NDP private member’s bill on Meaning Duty to Consult fails on second reading.

REGINA - It was a frustrating end of the legislative week for opposition New Democrats, in particular on issues of health care and the duty to consult.

On the health issue, they continued to be frustrated by the responses they were getting in the Assembly from the Sask Party government. Health Minister Paul Merriman was under fire throughout the week in Question Period on one health care issue after another.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the Opposition continued to blast away over a leaked internal Saskatchewan Health Authority memo to Lanigan hospital employees from Feb. 7, one which the NDP characterized as a "hush memo" to silence staff from talking to them.

The memo to staff was issued just prior to the arrival of NDP MLAs Vicki Mowat and Matt Love on their Health Solutions Tour that same day.

In Question Period Wednesday, under questioning from Regina Elphinstone-Centre MLA Meara Conway, Merriman continued to maintain the memo was "part of a larger communication to all SHA employees about the process and procedures when booking for hospital tours."

But in making her case, Conway referenced a CTV News interview done with three nurses, who appeared unidentified to voice concerns about the state of health care.

"As usual, that minister downplayed, defected, denied, said health care workers don’t have anything to fear when it comes to speaking out," Conway said in Question Period. "If that’s the case, why did the three nurses speaking to the CTV yesterday feel they could only do so anonymously?" 

"I categorically reject that question, Mr. Speaker. That’s not what I said at all, Mr. Speaker," Merriman said. 

Merriman made it known that health care workers were free to voice their concerns, pointing to meetings he had had with them throughout the week. The minister maintained the memo was about clarifying policy, and to make sure "we maintain the integrity of our hospitals for privacy issues, security issues, Mr. Speaker. We need those tours to be organized. Nobody — and I will repeat this, Mr. Deputy Speaker — nobody is hushing health care workers’ voices."

"Mr. Speaker, correction. That memo was sent to Lanigan health care workers the morning of our planned and publicized outreach in Lanigan," Conway replied. "A coincidence, Mr. Speaker? I think not."

Contraception issue raised

Another issue raised by the Opposition Wednesday was on the need for universal prescription contraceptive coverage, an issue they highlighted in a news conference alongside medical students from the University of Saskatchewan, as well as doctors Dr. Christine Lett and Dr. Sally Mahood.

They were there calling for free universal prescription contraceptive coverage. Opposition critic Jennifer Bowes raised the issue in Question Period.

"These doctors see every day how the lack of access to prescription contraception is hurting women in our province. Dr. Lett sent a letter to the Sask Party government’s Health minister in 2019, four years ago, where she laid out for him that universal no-cost contraception would lead to improved health equity, a sevenfold return on investment, fewer unwanted pregnancies, and an increased uptake in effective contraceptive methods, Mr. Speaker," Bowes said.

"But still, just last week this Health minister said the government is not looking to make any changes to coverage. If the minister won’t get on board with this proposal, Mr. Speaker, can he tell us which of those outcomes it is that he exactly opposes?"

In his response to this question and others, Merriman pledged he would sit down and have a discussion directly with the students and doctors right after Question Period. 

Opposition private member's Duty to Consult bill defeated

On Thursday, Sask Party MLAs voted to defeat on second reading the private member's bill from Saskatoon Centre MLA Betty Nippi-Albright on The Meaningful Duty to Consult Act. 

Nippi-Albright said to reporters the Act would haven given First Nations, the treaty rights holders, the "ability to say how duty to consult would occur in their communities. This would give them the ability to create the process of how that happens. This would give them the ability to connect with the users of those lands, the ones that are going to be impacted, whether it is hunters, medicine pickers, cultural folks that uses lands."

Minister of Government Relations Don McMorris noted his government had already been undertaking a review of Duty to Consult, and had received feedback from First Nations and also from industry. He indicated that something would come back to the legislature in the next week or two with their solutions.

As for why the government voted against Nippi-Albright's bill, McMorris noted that many industry people that he had talked to, including SUMA, SARM, the Chamber of Commerce and others, had "never even heard of this bill." He called out the lack of consultation with those stakeholders.

"To say that you should enshrine the consultation process, and then not consult the vast majority of stakeholders... just begs the question of whether we should be supporting that bill or not."

The other concern McMorris expressed had to do with a reference in the bill of "free and prior consent."

He called it "quite a significant statement. It virtually becomes a veto vote on any project going forward. So there were definitely concerns around that."

"The minister is reading what he wants to read in that bill," Nippi-Albright responded. "There's no mention in there about veto."

Nippi-Albright said afterwards she was "not surprised at all" that the bill was defeated. "This government has a track record of not listening to Indigenous people in this province. So I am not at all surprised."