09/28/2013 11:18 EDT | Updated 11/28/2013 05:12 EST

Midwifery group demanding expansion plan from Nova Scotia's political parties

HALIFAX - Calls from the Midwifery Coalition of Nova Scotia for expansion of the province's midwifery services prompted all three of the main political parties on Saturday to commit to working toward their demands if elected Oct. 8.

About 50 women, men and babies held hand-made signs and chanted outside the Halifax Public Library Saturday morning to rally for a plan to expand the program as the third week of the election campaign came to a close.

Publicly funded midwives are currently only available in the Halifax region and the South Shore and Guysborough Antigonish Strait district health authorities.

But Jackie Kellestine, co-chairwoman of the coalition, said midwives should be available in every health district. She said since regulated midwifery was introduced in 2009, little has been done to broaden the program.

"Our vision is to have midwifery care accessible to all families in Nova Scotia... and what we want from the provincial government is a plan of how we're going to get that," said Kellestine.

Kellestine said the issue is influencing rural voters who don't currently have access to midwives.

Dawn Hare of Kentville, N.S, who had two home births prior to the legislation, said she's been fighting for service to the Annapolis Valley region for four years.

"I had exceptional, extraordinary care and there's so many families in the valley right now that want that same care," said Hare, who is also a member of a group called the Valley Families for Midwifery. "Based on where we live in the province, we can't have that? That's frustrating."

NDP Health Minister Dave Wilson said the province has made progress since a 2011 independent report that made recommendations to improve the service, including hiring a recruitment specialist to oversee midwifery services. A specialist was hired in March.

The report also recommended setting a long-term goal to have midwives in each district health authority and 20 publicly funded positions by the end of the 2017 fiscal year.

Wilson recognized that expanding the service across the province will be a challenge. He said a re-elected NDP government would continue to try to attract midwives, which has been an issue in the past.

"We know that for decades it's been sporadic around the province and that's why we took the step to do the external review and now are implementing the recommendations within that review," said Wilson.

"Our commitment is to work extremely hard to try to increase the accessibility to midwifery services across the province."

Kellestine recognized that the provincial government has taken positive steps, but said the progress is too slow and without a concrete expansion plan in place, the coalition doesn't know what to expect for the future.

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil noted that his party plans to cut the number of health boards from 10 to two and that those boards could provide the service province-wide.

"Certainly we would look at it for sure," said McNeil. "I've always believed that it's one more avenue that women and families can have when it comes to the delivery of their children."

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said he would develop a plan to broaden the program and would work with the coalition to set timelines.

"We have to roll out the program in a reasonable fashion at a rate that we can afford based on the supply of midwives available," said Baillie.

The rally comes less than a week after the IWK Health Centre in Halifax reinstated the service, which was suspended in December 2010. The suspension took place after three midwives quit and another went on leave following conflicts with other health-care staff.