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Health budget includes free contraception, $1-billion boost for mental health and addictions

The plan includes $586 million for treatment and recovery beds — 190 new treatment beds are promised in the budget — throughout B.C.
Finance Minister Katrine Conroy. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

B.C. will spend an additional $6.4 billion on health-care over the next three years, including a $1 billion boost in mental health and addictions funding and a first-in-Canada free prescription contraception program, as part of the provincial budget released Tuesday.

“Mental health is health,” said Finance Minister Katrine Conroy. “That’s why our government made the largest investment in mental health and addictions services in B.C. history.”

The mental-health and addictions boost includes $867 million in operating funding and about $170 million in capital investments. The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions currently has a budget of $10 million.

The plan includes $586 million for treatment and recovery beds — 190 new treatment beds are promised in the budget.

It also includes expansion of the model of complex mental-health and substance-use care at the 105-bed Red Fish Healing Centre in Coquitlam — on the site of the old Riverview Hospital — to other regions of the province. Those locations have yet to be decided. “The ministry is working on that as we speak,” said Conroy.

Conroy said the subsidized daily user fees on public beds will remain except on the 190 new beds to be created. There was no timeline provided for the provision of those beds.

The B.C. Liberals had proposed a $1.5-billion plan for mental health and addictions that included no-cost treatment beds and government paying for private beds when there’s a wait list for public beds.

B.C. Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon said he’s pleased to see more money for treatment and recovery “but my goodness they can’t talk about expanding Red Fish and talk about having it throughout the province then have nothing in the capital budget of the actual budget to show that there’s actual dollars that have been put aside for those recovery centres or the Red Fish expansion.”

He criticized daily fees for treatment beds, which he called a barrier to people seeking care, and the lack of funding to pay for private beds when there’s a wait list for public beds.

Jonny Morris, CEO of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, called the new mental-health funding “historic.” “Ideally there would be no fee to access any kind of mental-health care, but today is a first step.”

There are about 3,000 substance use beds in the province. Morris said he hopes the 190 new beds will be implemented quickly. The toxic drug crisis kills six people a day in B.C.

Another $184 million of the $1 billion in new mental-health and addictions funding will go toward enhanced prevention and intervention services for children and youth, safe drug alternatives to the toxic street supply, expansion of the two Car programs, which match police and health-care workers and civilian-led Peer Assisted Car Teams (PACTs), and a plan for culturally sensitive PACTs led by Indigenous people.

The B.C. Green Party had proposed that mental-health counselling through psychologists be covered under the Medical Services Plan, but that’s not in the budget.

The $6.4 billion in new health-care funding over three years includes $2.2 billion in contingencies, which include pandemic funding.

The Health Ministry budget will increase from $28.7 billion in 2023-24 to $29.9 billion in 2024-25 and $30.7 billion in 2025-26.

The health-care budget includes nearly $1 billion to recruit, train and retain workers; a new primary-care compensation model announced last year; and free prescription contraception starting April 1.

A prescription from a doctor or nurse practitioner will be needed for contraceptives until the spring, when the province hopes the same prescriptions could be written by pharmacists.

Teale Phelps Bondaroff, who helped form AccessBC to fight for free contraception in the province, called B.C. a “beacon of hope for reproductive justice.”

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba and Ontario are working toward taking the same step, but B.C. is the first so far, said Phelps Bondaroff.

By preventing abortions and unwanted pregnancies, the program will lead to better health outcomes for mothers and infants, more equity in the health-care system, and lower health-care costs, he said.

Falcon applauded the move to provide free prescription contraception, which both the NDP and Liberals promised during the 2020 provincial election.

The health-care budget also contains $270 million over the next three years toward the $440 million in cancer care announced Friday. “We’re focused on improving access to screening, early detection, diagnosis and treatment,” said Conroy. “Nobody should be stuck waiting for a test result or urgently needed treatment.”

Falcon said B.C. has the worst wait times for cancer care in the country.

Liberal finance critic Peter Milobar said despite seven budgets referencing record investments, health-care and mental health and addictions outcomes are at their “worst” and people are feeling anxious.

“They’re worrying whether an ambulance they call will be able to get to their loved one in the case of an emergency, and then, if the ambulance does come, whether or not there’ll be a hospital or an emergency room open,” said Milobar.

The B.C. Green Party said expanding mental-health services across the province is crucial, but criticized the lack of investment in preventive measures such as covering psychologists’ services under MSP or hiring more school psychologists or counsellors.

On Vancouver Island, health-care spending includes $224 million in new funding for a long-term care facility in the Western Communities and $60 million to complete the inten sive-care-unit improvements at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, which ran into increased costs.

The province has signed contracts with the Doctors of B.C., the Resident Doctors Association of B.C., the Health Sciences Professional Bargaining Association, the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., and the Facilities Bargaining Association, which includes nine unions, including the Hospital Employees’ Union.

A tentative agreement with the Community Health Bargaining Association is expected to be ratified this week, while the province remains in negotiations with the B.C. Nurses’ Union.

BCNU president Aman Grewal said while the union applauds the significant investment in mental-health and addictions spending, she didn’t see the same recognition for supporting the mental health and well being of nurses or specific dollars earmarked for retaining nurses.

Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie said she was disappointed there was nothing in the budget for low-income seniors, though she’s hopeful for some relief in rent subsidies from the Housing Ministry.

A tentative agreement with the federal government for increased health transfers is not included in the budget.

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