Manitoba premier eyes review of health group, comments on back bencher

WINNIPEG — Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew said Tuesday he is pausing some activities by the province's Diagnostic and Surgical Recovery Task Force — a group set up under the previous Progressive Conservative government to reduce wait times for health-care services.

The group has committed roughly $240 million since its inception in 2021 and, in some cases, has signed agreements with out-of-province providers in an attempt to get patients faster treatment.

"One of the most serious concerns I've heard articulated was a lack of oversight around decision-making of this task force, and in particular, that they were making decisions about spending without having a system-wide view of what's happening in the health care system," Kinew said.

Kinew was sworn in last week after the NDP defeated the Tories in the Oct. 3 provincial election. The new government has asked the group to not commit to any new initiatives or enter into any new financial arrangements while the province examines possible health care improvements and a reduction in the health bureaucracy, he said.

Existing arrangements will continue, Kinew added.

While in government, the Tories said the task force had succeeded in bringing down wait times that had swelled during the COVID-19 pandemic. The group's initiatives had cut backlogs to pre-pandemic levels for transplants, MRIs, orthopedic spine procedures and some other services, the government said in May.

"I think they were able to demonstrate that they made a significant impact on reducing the diagnostic and surgical backlog," newly elected Tory health critic Kathleen Cook said Tuesday.

But the group also faced criticism from some quarters over the number of contracts being signed with the private sector. There were also questions about the secrecy surrounding the value of contracts with providers in the United States.

Kinew focused much of his election campaign on health care and promised to reduce wait times, reopen three hospital emergency departments that were closed under the Tories, and recruit more doctors, nurses and other health workers. He also promised to cut health bureaucracy and focus money on front-line care.

Now on the government side with 33 fellow New Democrat legislature members, Kinew promised Tuesday to listen to the concerns of health-care workers.

There have been signs of possible tension between Kinew and one of his caucus members — Mark Wasyliw, who has represented the Fort Garry seat in Winnipeg since 2019.

Wasyliw has come under fire from the Tories for continuing to work as a lawyer while serving in the legislature. He told the Winnipeg Free Press on Monday he was disappointed at not being named to the NDP cabinet and plans to continue to work as a defence lawyer.

Kinew said Tuesday elected officials should focus on serving the public.

"I think all of us should understand that public service is more than a full-time job," Kinew said.

When asked whether he will require Wasyliw to stop his legal work, Kinew said, "I don't think I'm sharing any news on that today".

Wasyliw did not shake Kinew's hand after being sworn in along with other caucus members Monday. Other New Democrats shook the premier's hand, hugged or offered a fist-bump after taking their oaths.

Wasyliw declined an interview request Tuesday and instead issued a brief written statement that said he is honoured with his new role as a legislative assistant to Education Minister Nello Altomare.

"I take my role in this government seriously," the statement read in part.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2023

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press