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The Globe and Mail

Over-55 voters become focus with health care the No. 2 issue

The first two weeks of the provincial campaign have provided an opportunity to review the health-care policies of British Columbia's two main parties. The B.C. Liberals presented their entire platform the day before the writ was dropped, and the New Democratic Party made one of its key announcements last Tuesday in the health minister's riding.

Canadians have long expressed a fondness for their health-care system seldom seen around the world. It is consistently cited in Canada Day polls as a source of pride, easily outranking bilingualism, aboriginal culture, Parliament and the monarchy.

Nurses and doctors topped our national "professional" rankings last year with 96 per cent of positive mentions, compared with only 27 per cent for politicians, who were practically tied with car salesmen.

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This month, in a new Angus Reid Public Opinion poll, more than two thirds of British Columbians (71 per cent) said they are confident they would have access to all the help from doctors and hospitals that they would need if they were to become sick.

Yet, despite their respect for those who work in clinics and hospitals, and faith they will get the help they might need, Canadians and British Columbians are still concerned about the health-care system.

Any hostility, however, is directed squarely at people who do not wear scrubs or white coats. Almost half of British Columbians believe two issues – bureaucracy and poor management (25 per cent) and long wait times (23 per cent) – are the biggest problems facing the system right now. People who voted for the B.C. Liberals in 2009 are more likely to cite bureaucracy as a health-care concern (31 per cent) than those who voted for the NDP (26 per cent).

Health care is second most important issue in the minds of British Columbia's voters, behind the economy. It has consistently ranked higher than the environment and leadership. For the past five years, the New Democrats have maintained their lead as the best perceived stewards of health care, a trend that began under leader Carole James.

Across the province, 27 per cent of respondents think the NDP has the best policies to deal with health care, an 11-point advantage over the B.C. Liberals. The B.C. Conservatives and the B.C. Greens barely registering on the scale. Despite this clear lead for the New Democrats, 37 per cent of British Columbians remain undecided as to who would handle health care best.

However, the race to be the best on health care tightens considerably when we isolate the demographic consistently the most dependable at election time: Voters over the age of 55. The NDP's 11-point lead as the best choice for health care drops to five points with this group (27 per cent to 22 per cent), and the number of undecided respondents falls by 12 points to 25 per cent.

British Columbians over 55 are more likely to see health care as the top issue (25 per cent, compared with just 13 per cent for those aged 18-to-34). They're also more likely to identify bureaucracy as the big problem (35 per cent, 10 points above the provincial average). Looking at the numbers, it is not surprising, then, that most of the grandiose health-care announcements from both main parties have been aimed at this group.

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The B.C. Liberal platform pledges to work to develop new care options for people who have dementia, collaborate with the United Way to support seniors and make communities more age-friendly. The NDP's primary commitments are better home support and community-care services for seniors, and improved care standards for seniors who cannot remain at home.

On paper, these promises to seniors appear similar in scope. Therefore, the key issue for the two leaders vying to become premier is who will be deemed the most credible by the group that is more likely to vote on May 14. Older British Columbians have already established that they are more interested in health care than their younger counterparts. The leaders must now concentrate on being regarded as resolute and caring if they want to win their votes.

Mario Canseco is vice-president of Angus Reid Public Opinion. He is providing regular analysis of the firm's numbers throughout the 2013 B.C. campaign and writing a weekly column for Globe B.C.

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