It's easy to pinpoint the exact time when the NDP lost the health issue in rural Saskatchewan.
It was Mar. 18, 1993, the day of the infamous provincial budget that closed 52 rural hospitals. The closures cost the then Roy Romanow government half its rural seats in the election two years later and the rest of Saskatchewan's rural seats in the elections to come.
From that day forth, any NDP government initiative in health care, regardless of how nebulous or important, was treated with massive cynicism in rural Saskatchewan.
However, this wasn't necessarily the view of the cities that generally still viewed the NDP, the founders of medicare, as guardians of the public health care system. In fact, one of the biggest problems facing Premier Brad Wall has been to convince the rest of the province that his Saskatchewan Party government was capable of delivering quality health care as the NDP.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but it appears that Wall and the Sask. Party have accomplished just that.
You may recall an Angus Reid last December in which 50 per cent of Saskatchewan residents rated health care as good compared with 46 per cent of the province that rated it poor. Saskatchewan was the only province to crack that 50 per cent barrier. It also rated high in every specific health care area from visits to family doctors to specialists, to specialized diagnosis to emergency room care.
Of course, that Angus Reid poll might just reflect an overall satisfaction right now with the Wall government. Or perhaps it reflects the comparative dissatisfaction in other provinces.
Perhaps New Democrats might even find solace in the notion that this poll might be reflecting how Saskatchewan people especially value their public health system or that there is still some residual satisfaction from the days when the NDP ran things.
It's also important to note that the Sask. Party administration is a relatively new government that hasn't yet accumulated the same baggage that the past NDP government did. Some frustrations over health care are just starting to bubble to the surface in places like Wakaw where there were recent protests over the potential closure of the hospital due to the loss of the doctor.
That said, other polling, including one conducted by the Regina Leader-Post at the Sask. Party's third anniversary last November, suggests the Sask. Party is now seen to be as good or better health care providers than the NDP.
The NDP may have once owned the health care issue. but the Sask. Party are winning the battle over it everywhere.
Why is this happening? Well, it may just be because the Sask. Party has done some things right.
The government has clearly had success in recruiting additional nurses, a move that have not only silenced an extremely vocal critic of the government in the nurses union but also may be permeating improved morale through the entire health system.
Similarly, the recent doctors' contract settlement cuts off another huge potential problem in health care. Relatively generous settlements with other unions (partly, as a result of the government's essential services legislation) have avoided strikes.
But the Sask. Party's greatest victory may be in trying innovative ideas that the NDP wouldn't even touch. Things like private CT scans and private day surgery clinics to reduce the backlog on the waiting lists have been well received by the public because they appear to be accomplishing what they set out to do.
At least for now, it appears people like that the Wall's government is trying to do new things to make the system work better.
And while public satisfaction with health care never seems to last for long, the Sask. Party is winning this battle right now.