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Nova Scotia Finance Minister Allan MacMaster releases details about the 2022-23 provincial budget in Halifax on March 29.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Repairing Nova Scotia’s faltering health care system is the centrepiece of the provincial government’s $14.4-billion budget tabled Thursday, with spending on health jumping 13 per cent over the next year alone.

Premier Tim Houston’s Progressive Conservative government, elected in August, 2021, on a health-centric platform, has been pushing a “faster access to health care” mantra since voting day. And the title page of every budget document released Thursday included the word “FASTER” in huge type.

To deliver on that promise, the Tories’ second budget will again drop into deficit, this time by $278-million.

With health-related spending expected to increase by $750-million to $6.5-billion, that category now accounts for about 45 per cent of total spending.

“The health care system is something everyone benefits from, and no matter who you are in this province, you never know when you or a loved one are going to need that system,” Finance Minister Allan MacMaster told a news conference before he presented his budget in the legislature.

“We are laser focused on fixing the health care system and, there’s no question, it takes money to do it.”

Mr. Houston’s government announced 38 health care initiatives, many of them aimed at reducing health care wait-times and eliminating a chronic shortage of doctors.

Among the major items are $354-million for health care worker retention programs, $147-million for health related university initiatives and commitments to buy a fixed-wing air ambulance and provide income-tax cuts for young nurses.

No other significant tax changes were announced.

Meanwhile, problems with health care continue to plague Mr. Houston’s government.

Last month, the family of a Nova Scotia woman who died in hospital on after a seven-hour wait to see a doctor filed a lawsuit against the province’s health authority. Allison Holthoff, 37, died on New Year’s Eve at the Cumberland Regional Health Centre in Amherst, N.S., owing to complications from an untreated splenic aneurysm, according to the statement of claim.

A day before Ms. Holthoff’s death, 67-year-old Charlene Snow died at home after she gave up on seeing a doctor at a Cape Breton emergency room. She had waited about seven hours.

In response, Mr. Houston has been on a health care spending spree in recent weeks.

He committed $59-million to set up a medical school at Cape Breton University; $37-million on a health institute at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.; and $25-million on developing health-care analytics programs at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

That money came from last-minute “additional appropriations” that were not set aside in last year’s budget. In the past two years alone, the province’s health budget has ballooned by 22 per cent.

NDP Leader Claudia Chender said Thursday it’s disappointing that there appears to be “almost nothing” in this budget that will increase Nova Scotians’ access to a family doctor. As of March 1, about 14 per cent of Nova Scotians were registered as needing a family doctor. This waiting list has grown to 137,587 people, up from 71,666 when the Conservatives were elected in August, 2021.

Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said the budget should have focused on increasing access to primary health care by offering doctors cash to work in family medicine. “It’s shocking that there’s nothing in this budget to incentivize doctors to come back to family practice,” he said.

The budget documents indicate the government plans to continue racking up budget deficits for the next three years and, as a result, Nova Scotia’s net debt could rise to more than $23-billion, or about 36 per cent of its gross domestic product – four percentage points higher than the 2023 forecast.

Though the province is again resorting to deficit financing this fiscal year, Mr. Houston’s government will benefit from the province’s rapidly growing work force and the economic rebound experienced as the COVID-19 pandemic subsided.

By July of this year, the province’s population is expected to reach 1.04 million, a 2 per cent jump that marks a big increase for a province that for decades knew nothing but out-migration. The growth rate in the past year was the fastest recorded since 1926, when population tracking started.

Meanwhile, employment levels are at a record high, and the province’s real GDP – the sum of all goods and services produced – grew by a remarkably healthy 2.9 per cent in 2022, though the rate is expected to decline this year.

“Nova Scotia’s economy proved more resilient and recharged more quickly through the pandemic,” Mr. MacMaster said in his budget speech.

But with inflation hovering at about 7.5 per cent in 2022 and rapid population growth causing a severe housing shortage, low-income residents have been struggling.

As a result, the province plans to spend $36-million more on community services than what it spent last year. A government spokesperson said some of that money will go toward supportive housing and increasing the child benefit paid to low-income families.

For the second consecutive year the budget will not, however, increase provincial income assistance rates – something that local food banks and community groups have been calling for to cope with the rising cost of living and increased homelessness.

In January, Nick Jennery, executive director of Feed Nova Scotia, said income assistance rates were “grossly” below the poverty line.

Mr. MacMaster said there are other ways of helping those most in need. “The federal Finance Minister and the Governor of the Bank of Canada [say] targeted supports … are an effective way to help people when there’s inflation,” he told the news conference. As examples of this targeted support, he cited rent supplements, a new seniors care grant and a heating assistance rebate that rose to $1,000.

Ms. Chender said the lack of additional income assistance is troubling and argued that it is the program most targeted for helping those in need.

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