08/13/2013 11:24 EDT | Updated 10/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Manitoba hospitals lose $2 million a year selling snacks: taxpayers federation

WINNIPEG - The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says Manitoba's hospital cafeterias have lost $4.5 million since 2010 and should be replaced by private businesses that pay their employees a cheaper wage.

Colin Craig, the federation's director for Manitoba and Saskatchewan, said documents obtained through Freedom of Information show the hospital cafeterias lost $2.2 million in 2010-11 and $2.3 million in 2011-12. That's likely because the government pays its unionized employees higher salaries and benefits than a private corporation, he said.

The province should contract out its hospital cafeteria services, even if it means some people might lose their government job doling out snacks and meals, Craig said.

"Perhaps they could start working for the new firm that comes in," he said Tuesday.

"If you are working for a private business right now and you're working in a restaurant doing similar work, it's not fair to you to have to pay high taxes so someone can win the lottery, so to speak, by working for a similar institution in government and get paid a ton more."

If the province gets out of the hospital cafeteria business, Craig said it could apply the savings to front-line services and even reverse the recent provincial sales tax hike of one percentage point.

"We know there is an opportunity for savings there," he said.

A handful of hospital cafeterias did turn a profit and Craig highlighted the case of Victoria General Hospital which partnered with a private business to run its cafeteria. Now, instead of posting a $186,000 loss, he said the cafeteria made $25,000 last year.

Health Minister Theresa Oswald said the government is open to partnering with private companies when it makes the most sense for the patient. But she said she is skeptical.

"For families, who are perhaps rushing to a hospital to see a loved one who is in dire straits, perhaps they don't think about getting a meal on the way to doing that," she said.

"We want to ensure that there are cafeteria services that are open 24/7, that are affordable, that our families aren't being gouged by the kinds of prices that might happen. So we want to ensure there is a delicate balance being struck."

If a hospital cafeteria posts a deficit, Oswald said the shortfall must be made up through ancillary fees such as parking charges and gift shop proceeds.

She said the NDP government is also not keen to fire employees and force them to take lower-paying jobs with a private company for the same work.

"I believe in fair pay, good working conditions and I believe we should run an efficient health-care system so we differ on this front," she said.