Amicus deal hits rural radar

Murray Mandryk
Saskatchewan News Network; Regina Leader-Post
Tuesday, February 08, 2011

When the NDP during the past spring session started to hammer the government on the issue of the Amicus nursing home, it clearly hoped to achieve results immediately.

The story of the contract to build a nursing home in Saskatoon going untendered to a construction firm owned by a large donor to the Saskatchewan Party seemed to have elements of a scandal right out of the Grant Devine era.

Veteran New Democratic MLA Pat Atkinson spoke of an “odour” wafting around the private, 100-bed, long-term care facility. The agreement between the Saskatoon Health Region and Amicus Health Care Inc., a subsidiary of the Catholic Health Ministry of Saskatchewan, sees Amicus receive what the NDP described as a loan guarantee from the provincial government.

For added measure, the Opposition tossed in the fact that Amicus gets to charge a higher than normal daily bed fee to make the project more viable, and pointed to some political ties between those who are involved with the project and family members who are heavyweights in the Saskatchewan Party.

Notwithstanding the NDP’s persistent attacks virtually every day since the legislature resumed in the fall, the Amicus issue never really took hold.

This wasn’t necessarily because it was an “innovative pilot project … a full arms-length removed from government,” as Health Minister Don McMorris repeatedly claimed. It simply didn’t contain the two most critical elements of a scandal: concrete evidence of some friend or supporter making personal gain; or any sign of a massive waste of taxpayers’ dollars.

While Amicus hasn’t rendered the instant political reward for which the NDP had hoped, the party’s persistence may be paying dividends politically for another reason.

The government’s favoured approach to Amicus provides an interesting contrast to rural communities that aren’t getting the same treatment on the funding of local hospital and nursing home projects.

That unpleasant contrast was evident at last week’s Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association annual conference.

When McMorris again was asked about the 65-35 cost-sharing formula that forces rural communities to locally raise more than one-third the cost of any new hospital or nursing home, he raised the possibility of the government moving to a slightly more equitable 80-20 split.

This is obviously good news for those small communities that for the past two decades have relied on everything from bake sales to having kids turn over their 4-H beef winnings to raise money to make up the local share of 35 per cent. But in a later scrum with reporters McMorris called the decision a long ways off, and offered no insight on how such a policy might impact communities that already raised their 35 per cent share or still paying it off.

Even less helpful was his suggestion that while some communities are clamouring to have their share reduced to 20 per cent, others actually like paying the 35 per cent because that affords them a greater sense of pride and ownership in the facility.

If so, there surely can’t be much of sense of pride and ownership in the Amicus deal that -if nothing else -is laced with a lot of special considerations that rural communities aren’t getting and won’t be getting even if the government assumes 80 per cent of the cost of building local nursing homes and hospitals.

So why does Amicus receive a 100 per cent loan guarantee and other considerations such as a higher bed rate while rural communities have to do a considerable amount of fund-raising, the minister was asked last week.

It’s because the Amicus facility is a new, additional nursing home and not one that merely replaces a decrepit facility, he explained.

Exactly why a rural facility in desperate need of replacement deserves less government support than does Amicus is a bit of a puzzler.

That’s a question some people in rural Saskatchewan are beginning to ask as well.

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