While several hundred striking nurses picketed outside Nova Scotia's legislature, the Liberal government was inside tabling a $9.6-billion budget that increases health-care spending by $194-million, including $10.6-million for more rural doctors.
The contrast wasn't lost on the union representing the nurses. "Lots of money for physicians. Physicians don't work alone. No they don't. They need nurses," Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union, told The Globe and Mail Thursday, as she tried to make her voice heard above the din of whistles and noisemakers.
Ms. Jessome represents the 2,300 nurses who are out on a legal strike, which began early Thursday morning. It is not about wages. Rather, registered nurses say they are concerned about patient safety and are demanding mandated nurse-to-patient ratios that would require at least 100 more nurses.
This was the first budget for the Liberals, who were elected last fall with a majority mandate. Finance Minister Diana Whalen forecast a $279-million deficit and a $13.6-million surplus by the end of their mandate in 2017 -2018.
"We are facing significant economic and fiscal challenges," Ms. Whalen said in her speech. "Our population is shrinking and aging. And while there are some positive signs on the horizon in terms of economic prospects and growth, there remains a steep hill to climb."
For the first time ever, she announced, health-care spending will "top $4-billion in 2014-2015." This represents 41 per cent of total government spending of $9.9-billion, she said. Some of the money will be spent on recruiting, training and hiring doctors for rural and remote parts of the province, a tuition relief program for medical-school graduates and reducing waiting times for hip and knee replacements.
Also straining the government's expenditure, she said, are public-service wages and salaries. Most unions are concluding three-year contracts this year. "… a sustainable future will depend on the willingness of all partners to understand the depth of the challenge facing our province," she said., "a willingness to place our collective interests ahead of narrow agendas."
About 65 nurses and their supporters were watching the proceedings from the upper gallery – they had been warned about making noise and were kicked out after they clapped when Progressive Conservative finance critic Tim Houston commented on the strike.
This has been a tense week between the nurses and their employer, Capital District Health Authority, which operates the Halifax hospitals where the nurses work. Nearly 340 surgeries were postponed this week in anticipation of the strike, including 91 surgeries Thursday. About 300 outpatient appointments were postponed, and by the end of Thursday, 227 of 740 beds will be closed, according to Capital Health statistics.
Critical care areas, such as cancer, dialysis and intensive care, were appropriately staffed.
There is no timeline for when talks between the two sides will resume. Mediation broke down on Monday night when Premier Stephen McNeil's government introduced the Essential Health and Community Services Act, which nurses say takes away their right to strike. MLAs were sitting overnight to pass the legislation, which will effectively end the strike and force most nurses back to work.
"They're squeezing us," says Lynn Myra, a long-term care and geriatrics nurse with more than 30 years of experience. "We don't want to be here. It's not our choice. This was our last choice."
Ms. Myra, who was picketing at the Halifax Infirmary, knows the strike won't last long because of the back-to-work legislation. "We still figure we have to have a voice. We have to stand up to things."