04/17/2013 10:37 EDT | Updated 06/17/2013 05:12 EDT

New Brunswick health minister says promise kept despite hold on health spending

FREDERICTON - New Brunswick's health minister is denying that his government has broken a promise to increase health spending by three per cent, even though his $2.5 billion budget is unchanged from last year.

Hugh Flemming told the legislature Wednesday that the Health Department has increased spending by $103 million, but has also found savings of that same amount to offset any increase in his total budget.

"If you can spend and invest in clinical care and cover that amount by efficiencies in an otherwise bloated system, then that's what I did and I'm not going to apologize for it," he said.

"I don't consider that to be not respecting a promise."

Flemming said New Brunswick's per capita health care spending is $325 more than the national average, and he won't be happy until the province matches that national average. That is about $4,000, a spokeswoman for the Health Department later said.

He said the Progressive Conservative government is trying to manage spending better, adding that he believes $2.5 billion is enough to provide health care to a province of 750,000 people.

In December, Flemming said he would implement a mandatory prescription drug insurance plan to cover the estimated 70,000 families who have no drug coverage after he tabled a report that recommended that measure.

At the time, he also said the government would implement a catastrophic drug plan intended to help relieve people of the costs of some expensive prescriptions.

But Flemming said Wednesday there is no money allocated for the program this year because the government is still working on its implementation. He said there will be money for a drug program next year — the final year of the government's mandate.

Liberal health critic Donald Arseneault took issue with Flemming's assertion that the government has followed through on its health spending promise.

"His math is as bad as (Premier) David Alward's math," Arseneault quipped.

Arseneault said it was also irresponsible of Alward to promise during the last election campaign that he would bring in catastrophic drug coverage, given the province's financial situation.

"He did it to get votes, and today people facing catastrophic situations are not getting the help they need," Arseneault said.

This year's health budget includes $6.3 million for the implementation of electronic medical records and $2 million for planning and implementation of a colon cancer screening program.

Flemming said efforts to find more savings will continue, including hiring a private company to manage food services in hospitals, and reducing the number of hospital-based laundries.

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