01/14/2015 08:41 EST | Updated 03/16/2015 05:59 EDT

Newfoundland premier says fix for province's costly health care long-term project

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - It will take time to change Newfoundland and Labrador's health system as the government grapples with huge costs and dwindling revenues, Premier Paul Davis said Wednesday.

His government spends more per person on medical services than any other province yet hasn't copied primary care improvements made elsewhere, he said.

Davis promised when he ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives last year to get front-line advice.

"I'm looking forward to hearing your new, innovative ideas — ideas that are practical and affordable, and can be put into action either in the very new future or even farther down the road," Davis said at the opening of a summit on health care packed with more than 300 specialists and residents.

"This will be a process that's going to take time."

Health services take up almost 40 per cent of the provincial budget.

Davis said he wants to combine expert recommendations with input gathered from patients.

A full day was scheduled for small group discussions including medical experts, advocates, administrators and citizens.

Health Minister Steve Kent said a list of major issues was drawn from 13 public meetings held last year around the province. Top concerns ranged from high turnover of staff, especially in rural areas, to long wait times for procedures, a lack of family physicians and a shortage of mental health supports.

Kent said the goal is to create a new primary care framework focused on community programs that promote healthy living and disease prevention.

"Ultimately we want to get the best value and the best health outcomes for the money we spend," he told the meeting.

The oil-dependent province is forecasting a $916-million deficit this year as the price of Brent crude has plunged. That estimate could well be higher as oil continues to hover below US$50 a barrel, well down from US$115 in mid-June and far below the price of US$105 on which the provincial budget relies.

The province's offshore oil sector provides about one-third of government revenues.

Davis has warned of spending cuts to come and said Wednesday that everything is on the table.

Dr. Wendy Graham, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, said the health sector needs to be better co-ordinated.

"I think in some ways we're healthy," she told reporters. "But we certainly have a long way to go and that involves all the aspects that we're talking about today, from prevention to treatment amongst all the different sectors, all the professionals."

Newfoundland and Labrador has an aging population compared to other parts of the country. It also has some of the highest rates of obesity and risk for diabetes.

A study last March published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that in 2011 almost 42 per cent of the population aged 18 or older in the province was overweight.

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