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Throne speech speaks to healthcare, deficit

The annual throne speech, the address by government that officially marks the opening of the provincial legislature, paints a rosy picture of the provinces health, while touting many planned changes the Wall government hopes to deliver in the coming

The annual throne speech, the address by government that officially marks the opening of the provincial legislature, paints a rosy picture of the provinces health, while touting many planned changes the Wall government hopes to deliver in the coming budget.

Beginning with a quote from poet Robert Frost, Wall presented the major theme used throughout the speech, that of Saskatchewan being on a road '. . . less travelled . . .'

The official numbers for population growth in the province are welcoming, with the population now standing at 1,045,622 persons, a growth of more than 16,000 from last year.

This puts Saskatchewan at the highest population levels in its history.

Further, the speech presented the fact that 6,300 more people were employed since last year, though the address did not state whether these were full-time or part-time positions, or a mixture of both.

Health and healthcare were topics frequently returned to over the course of the speech.

Wall spoke about the reduction in wait times for surgical procedures, pointing out that in Saskatoon, the wait list for hip and knee replacements had been reduced by 71 percent, year-over-year.

Wall further stated that his government's goal was to continue investing in efforts to reduce surgical wait time until the target time frame of no more than three months was reached.

There was no indication if this meant further contracting of surgeries to private, third-party surgical clinics.

The speech also promised a significant expansion to the province's emergency medical services by investigating the possibilities of a helicopter-based ambulance service.

Consultation into the feasibility of the project were announced to be underway, with the co-operation and input from Alberta's helicopter-based air ambulance system, the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service (STARS.)

The envisioned new service would work in conjunction with existing ground ambulance and air ambulance services and programs it was announced.

The issue of doctor shortages was also addressed in the throne speech, with Wall highlighting two programs his government have already begun.

First, the new doctor recruitment agency, based out of Saskatoon, was spoken of, and then Wall mentioned the provinces unique new system of foreign doctor assessment.

In regards to widespread concern being voiced about healthcare, Wall also announced that his government would be designing and implementing a new provincial healthcare Ombudsman position, to work within the provincial Ombudsman's office.

A further promise made during the speech was regarding the shortage of long-term care beds in the province.

Promising to support the growth of long-term care by financially supporting the upgrading of existing facilities, as well as constructing new ones, Wall also indicated that introducing third-party, conceivably for-profit facilities was on the table as well.

Stating in the throne speech that, "My government is committed to pursue innovative funding models to address the shortage of long-term care beds through partnerships with reputable third party agencies." Wall effectively stated that some responsibility for long-term care would be re-directed to non-governmental agencies.

Committing his government to ensuring ". . . every Saskatchewan resident has access to a qualified physician regardless of where they live . . ." Wall took head-on an issue that has been growing for some time regarding the delivery of healthcare in the province.

Wall also addressed in his speech three environmental projects he promised to deliver.

First, Wall committed his government to doubling the wind-generated power capacity in the province to a total of 400 megawatts.

Second, Wall promised to continue the EnerGuide home energy conservancy project, a project which so far has eliminated more than 75,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually by government estimations.

Finally, Wall spoke about a plan to introduce a new, multi-material recycling program in the province, though no details were provided.

Moving away from healthcare, other topics covered in this throne speech included a reduction in natural gas prices for Saskatchewan consumers, as well as some reforms and changes to the Municipalities Act.

Wall used the speech to the throne to inform Saskatchewan residents about a seven percent reduction in natural gas prices in the province, with the price reduction coming online as of Nov. 1.

In regards to municipalities, Wall again stated his government's determination to begin sharing one percent of the provincial sales tax with municipal governments, something the Sask Party has been speaking of for some years now, and Wall also announced planned changes to the election portion of the Municipalities Act which would see municipally elected representatives holding their positions for a four-year term.

The present guidelines have municipal representatives sitting for a total of three years before they have to seek a new mandate.

Also, the government has pledged to include legislation that would require voters to provide photo identification when turning out to vote in both municipal and provincial elections.

On the fiscal front, Wall stated in his speech to the throne that provincial debt reduction, from $6.8 billion to $4.1 billion, since his government took office in 2007.

This claim has been attacked by NDP finance critic Trent Wotherspoon.

"Of great concern to Saskatchewan people, businesses and communities is Brad Wall's negative fiscal trend-line, which is going completely in the wrong direction." Wotherspoon stated. "He started his term in a massive surplus position as a result of prudent planning by the NDP and reaped even more as a result of record resource revenues."

"But he has deteriorated this position for two years in a row with massive budget deficits and is increasing our debt which is projected to grow by 55 percent, or $4.2 billion, by 2014," Wotherspoon attested. "This has negative consequences for all of us, now and well into our future."

NDP party leader Dwain Lingenfelter also weighed in on the financial claim.

"There is an inconsistency in the reporting about paying down the debt," Lingenfelter said. "The number show that the general revenue is up, but we are now in a second year of deficit."