Building a Better, Safer Air Ambulance Service for Northern Manitoba

Manitobans voted our government into office nearly three years ago on the expectation we would use taxpayer dollars in an effective and responsible way, while at the same time improving the services they depend on.

This is exactly what we’re endeavouring to do with Lifeflight – an air ambulance service which provides critical care for patients living in remote corners of the province and Manitoba’s north.

We want to build a better, safer service for patients that delivers more for taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

We’ve seen countless examples of how spending more and more money to address problems often doesn’t work. The people living in this province know they need a government that will get its financial house in order as well as focus on getting better value for the taxpayer money it spends.

That has meant a painstaking review of departments and programs to determine what’s working and what can be improved upon.

With Lifeflight, what we’ve discovered is the system has been neglected for years.

A program review completed last year found several interesting things, including:

  • The use of private carriers for critical air ambulance flights has been doubling annually since 2014, when the former NDP government was still in office. The 2017/18 fiscal year was a tipping point, with Lifeflight using private carriers more often than the province’s two Citation jets for a variety of reasons, including maintenance; and
  • A better and more consistent level of service might be possible for Lifeflight if Manitoba followed the lead of provinces like Alberta, B.C. and Ontario and formalized the contracting out of flights to a private carrier.

While such a plan makes all sorts of fiscal sense, it is vital that any decision takes into account the continued health and well-being of any Manitoban who uses the service. As the request for proposals (RFP) process moves along, we’ve said time and time again that any alternate plan must maintain – if not improve upon – current service and safety levels.

In short, we’re attempting to build a better, safer service for patients that delivers more for taxpayer’s hard-earned money. If the private sector can’t provide an option that improves upon the current model, we won’t move forward.

If all of this sounds reasonable to you, that’s because it is common sense. It makes even more sense when you consider that the majority of Canada’s provinces use private carriers to provide air ambulance services.

Unfortunately, the NDP, the same party who oversaw the initial rise in Lifeflight’s use of private carriers in the first place, are now fearmongering about safety issues, with help from their public sector unions. It’s an absurd argument, as there’s no evidence to suggest safety has been compromised in other provinces where private carriers are used.

Regrettably, Lifeflight air ambulance’s leadership continues to issue new conditions and threatens to withhold service. We have met with these physicians a number of times and we’ve addressed their key issues, hiring two new pilots and accelerating scheduled maintenance of one of the province’s jets as a demonstration of our intent to keep the program strong while the RFP process continues into the spring.

But we owe it to Manitobans to ensure government programs work as safely and efficiently as possible. The northern air ambulance program should not and will not be exempted from such scrutiny.

While our government must develop plans to ensure the service continues in the event northern air ambulance withholds service, it’s not a scenario our government or anyone prefers to see play out in real time.

We will continue to talk with these physicians about the important place Lifeflight has within our transformed health system and their obligation to properly staff flights. We will also continue to protect the interests of taxpayers by considering ways to improve the safety and efficiency of government programs.

 

Ron Schuler is minister of infrastructure for the Manitoba government.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Winnipeg Sun. 

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