Flash in the pan

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Every year, there’s a flashy issue in the auditor general’s report that ends up garnering a disproportionate amount of public attention. Last year, it was the fact that probably the only unprofitable Tim Horton’s franchise in the country was the one being run out of Eastern Health’s Health Sciences Centre. (Leave aside the bizarre situation that a province that counts obesity as one of its major health concerns had a doughnut shop in its largest hospital.)

This year, it looks like the issue is going to be the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Health Information, currently making national news with salary increases in the 120 per cent range over just three years. Why? Because everyone can feel a little rankled about someone else’s salary more than doubling, especially as the winter heat bills slide through the mail slot. (A telling detail: the centre wrote the minister of health in 2008 to say it was altering its pay scales, and did not receive a response.)

The problem is that the lightning-rod issues tend to be the ones that can be fixed quickly — governments take action and cast themselves as responsive to criticism and brave stewards of the public purse.

But if you really want to take the measure of the response, look at the more fundamental issues. In yesterday’s editorial, we pointed out the government’s thorny problem with the auditor general’s revelation that this province spends more per capita on services than any other province — 50 per cent more than the national average. That’s a big number, yet there are probably few Newfoundlanders and Labradorians going around saying we’re getting the best services in the nation. Do we have the best medical services? The shortest wait times? The fastest emergency rooms? The best prison system?

You get the point: plenty of bucks, but not any particular bang.

That’s not likely to be fixed this year, next year or any year — and if you want proof of that all you have to do is to look at the response to the auditor general’s report by newly minted Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy.

“Our government has a solid history of sound fiscal management; however, we must remain diligent in ensuring that we manage the programs and services that we provide in the most effective and efficient way possible,” Kennedy was quoted as saying in a news release. “As we get closer to the upcoming budget process, we must make difficult decisions to manage our spending, as recommended by the auditor general. We must continue to make the right decisions now to sustain a bright and prosperous future for residents of our province and future generations.”

The problem with that statement? The “upcoming budget process” is basically complete. At this point, the government is likely to tinker with a few of the issues raised by the auditor general, but is unlikely to shift the great ship of finance away from the work it has spent 10 months of the year preparing with other government departments.

When Kennedy makes the statement “as recommended by the auditor general,” it is essentially lip service, even if the government was already moving in the direction of drastically cutting service costs.

The flashy issues get addressed; the fundamental ones linger.

Correction

This editorial erroneously suggests that last year’s auditor general’s report noted that the Tim Horton’s outlet in the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s was losing money. In fact, that point was announced by Eastern Health CEO Vickie Kaminski in a news conference on May 29, 2012. The Telegram regrets the error.

Organizations: Health Sciences Centre, Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Health Information

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