Despite years of government promises to focus on preventive health care, B.C.’s health budget actually spends very little on wellness and disease prevention, says the province’s financial watchdog.
The Vancouver Island Health Authority spent only three per cent of its annual budget last year on population health and wellness, according to a breakdown released Thursday by auditor general John Doyle.
Provincially, health authorities spent an average of five per cent, or $536 million, on preventive health and wellness, out of $12.6 billion, the report said.
“Overall, it’s a small part of the budget,” said Morris Sydor, assistant auditor general. “This is a priority that’s been identified through the throne speech for several years, and it is an area where people feel if we do a good job on the preventative side, we should probably be able to generate savings on the health care side.”
The government’s “new emphasis on healthy lifestyles, prevention and accountability” has been a major theme since 2008, when then premier Gordon Campbell deemed it one of his “five great goals.”
Prevention includes such things as screening programs and health and nutrition guides, which experts say can reduce the long-term prevalence of disease and injury.
The auditor’s report points to the disconnect between the government’s rhetoric and how it actually spends money, said NDP critic Mike Farnworth.
The B.C. Healthy Living Alliance would like to see at least six per cent of health funding spent on preventive programs, said chairman Scott McDonald.
“I think government has been pretty active in health promotion,” he said. “Is it enough? Probably not.”
Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said preventative health and wellness spending has increased 160 per cent since 2001.
“While it’s important to talk about the numbers and know where the money is going, our outcomes are even more important, and that’s where I really look,” she said.
B.C. has some of the best preventive health outcomes in Canada, such as the lowest death rate for all cancers, lowest incident of cancers and lowest smoking and obesity rates, she said. The government is working to reinforce those messages in schools and with seniors, she said.
“Some of that might not have huge dollars attached to it, but there’s a lot of time being put into it,” MacDiarmid said.
B.C. spent more than $15.5 billion on health care in 2011-12, roughly 40 per cent of the total government budget.
Approximately $1 billion was spent on prescription drugs through PharmaCare. The government has tried to curb growth there by pursuing generic drug agreements, Sydor noted.
About $31 million was spent on HealthLinkBC, which runs free phone lines for nurse and dietitian advice, and prints the B.C. Health Guide.
Since 2008, VIHA has increased spending in acute care, home and community care and mental health and addictions, the report shows. At the same time, it has decreased corporate expenses.
VIHA’s budget for preventative health and wellness decreased to $54 million last year from $56 million in 2008, according to the report.
Despite that, the health authority’s overall spending on prevention hasn’t dropped, said spokeswoman Sarah Plank. Many programs are included in other budget areas, such as cardiac health promotion within the heart health program, or chronic illness prevention within the integrated primary and community care project.
“Because elements of preventative health care are embedded within every program and service across VIHA, it would be impossible to extrapolate how much is spent overall on prevention,” Plank said.
The auditor general’s office said it would pursue audits in specific areas of health-care spending in the future.
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