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Saskatchewan’s health minister denies accusations of muzzling health-care workers after employees at a small community hospital were told in an internal memo not to speak with elected officials about their concerns.

Health Minister Paul Merriman said Tuesday the sender of a Saskatchewan Health Authority memo “misinterpreted” the policy when they told Lanigan Hospital staff not to co-ordinate tours or answer questions from legislature members or members of political parties.

The memo, released by the Opposition NDP, was sent on Feb. 7, the same day NDP legislature members were in the town southeast of Saskatoon as part of a tour to hear concerns about the state of health care in Saskatchewan.

Merriman explained the memo stems from a larger one sent earlier in the month across the health authority that told staff to direct legislature members and political parties to the co-ordinator if they wanted to tour facilities.

“It looks like there was some person’s interpretation to distribute that out to their staff. It’s mere speculation on why the language was modified, but that wasn’t the intent of the original memo,” Merriman said.

“The intent was to make sure that it was co-ordinated for patient safety and to minimize disruption for the health-care facility.”

However, the New Democrats said the memo shows the government is muzzling concerned health-care workers.

NDP democracy critic Meara Conway said some constituents can only have their voices heard through the party.

“The idea that we can’t ask questions of front-line workers about their day-to-day experiences in our publicly funded health-care system is offensive,” she said.

“The government isn’t silencing the Opposition party, who have a job and a role to play. They’re silencing the people of Saskatchewan, the people who rely on the health-care system and the people who work in the health-care system.”

The memo tells staff to direct legislature members to “central co-ordination” should they want information about the hospital and that “they have been advised of this process.”

Merriman explained central co-ordination is run by a person at the Saskatchewan Health Authority to set up facility tours. He said the Ministry of Health is not involved in that process.

Many small Saskatchewan hospitals have been plagued by temporary disruptions, resulting in reduced hours and closures.

Some community members have voiced frustration with being unable to access health care close to home and in a timely way.

NDP health critic Vicki Mowat said the Saskatchewan Party government has created an environment that politicizes decision-making.

Mowat said there is a “culture of fear” in health-care centres and employees are afraid to speak about their concerns.

“I think what has changed is that we have a government that is so focused on limiting transparency and centralizing power so that all decision-making happens at that level,” she said. “It’s top-down and people do not feel empowered to speak out.”

Mowat said NDP legislature members were able to meet Lanigan staff who were comfortable meeting off the hospital site. The party has also toured other health centres.

However, Mowat said she and her colleagues have been accompanied by ministry staff and sometimes a Saskatchewan Party member when they’ve toured other facilities.

Conway said such monitoring can put health-care staff in difficult positions to speak openly.

“That’s consistent with what we see coming from this hush memo, which is increasingly surveillance and keeping tabs on what’s being shared with the public and the Opposition,” Conway said. “I’ve only been on one such tour, but it struck me that I was loath to sort of put anyone in that position in that context.”

Merriman said the SHA co-ordinator can make those tours available to Saskatchewan Party members because it’s easier to combine people into a larger group than do multiple separate tours.

Legislature members’ staff can tag along, he added.

“There’s no grand conspiracy theory behind this,” he said. “It’s just a matter of co-ordinating to minimize disruption.”

Mowat charged the NDP is being assigned “Saskatchewan Party backbench babysitters to follow us around and listen to what we’re saying.”

She has asked for the return of community health advisory networks, which Mowat said were dismantled when the province’s health regions were amalgamated to form the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

Mowat said the advisory networks would allow community members to voice concerns and be included in decision making.

Merriman said various community associations remain active and that the government is engaging with them.

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