There was some good news in the 2019 data from the B.C. Coroners Service. Overdose deaths in the province declined for the first time since fentanyl-tainted drugs hit the streets and a public health emergency was declared in 2016.
The decrease was significant — down 36 per cent from 2018 — even though the death toll remains heartbreakingly high. As B.C. enters its fifth year of the crisis, nearly three British Columbians are dying every day.
It does mean that all of the money poured into this crisis — for naloxone kits, the training for paramedics, medical professionals and laypeople in how to use naloxone, more supervised consumption sites, and more people now on prescriptions for drugs like methadone and Suboxone to staunch addicts’ opioid cravings — is keeping more people alive.
But that’s really where the good news ends.
Alarmingly, the number of 911 calls has continued to climb.
Paramedics and other first responders took more than 24,000 calls last year, with calls spiking to more than 130 overdose alerts on “cheque days” or “welfare Wednesdays.”
Being revived from an overdose or living with an opioid addiction comes at a high cost.
Opioids affect the receptors in the brain, causing breathing to become dangerously slow, which in turn slows the heart and sometimes causing cardiac arrest. When the hearts doesn’t pump at capacity, less oxygenated blood makes it to the brain. Without oxygen, brain cells die — and they don’t regenerate.
It’s called toxic brain injury.
Within the coming weeks or months, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control will release data on the prevalence of brain injury among opioid users, including those who have been successfully restored to life with naloxone.
“We know that many hundreds of people will need a lifetime of care,” said Dr. Perry Kendall, who raised the alarm during the coroner’s news conference earlier this week. “It will be a tremendous burden.”
It’s far from the only one.
The burden carried by first responders is different and no less costly. They are burning out and checking out of the system, unable to cope physically, mentally or emotionally with the constant stress of being called to deal with all the overdoses.
This is not to say that harm-reduction measures aren’t working. No one disputes that they are keeping many people alive.
But until now, little attention has been focused on the quality of their lives, post-overdose.
Five years into the public health emergency, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said B.C. still doesn’t have a comprehensive system that includes prevention, treatment and recovery.
The lack of a seamless system is particularly problematic and even deadly for people in rural areas and those coming out of jails and prisons, according to Dr. Nel Wieman, senior medical officer at the First Nations Health Authority.
The numbers back that up. The death rate in the Northern Health Authority, at 22.5 per 100,000, trails Vancouver Coastal, which has the highest rate, by a mere half a percentage point.
Regardless of where they live, Lapointe said families frequently tell coroners how their loved ones managed through detox only to come out and die while on the waiting list for a recovery bed.
The problem isn’t necessarily that there aren’t enough treatment beds. On most days, some lie empty because the government only funds treatment for welfare recipients. Everyone else has to pay their own way. And except for those with generous employee benefits, many can’t afford treatment that comes at a cost of $900-plus a day.
Lapointe also decried the lack of provincial treatment standards. Different operators have different approaches. Some aren’t evidence-based. Some are strictly abstinence-based and refuse to accept people on drug therapies such as methadone and Suboxone, even though without that, they are more vulnerable to overdose if they relapse.
Decriminalization is touted by some as the answer. Without fear of criminal charges, the theory is that people would be more willing to seek help.
They point to Portugal, where decriminalization was brought in as part of a massive overhaul of its drug treatment system.
But decriminalization has only worked there because Portugal also boosted spending on the other three pillars — prevention, enforcement and treatment.
Here, the crucial elements are missing. With a minority government in Ottawa, the Liberals already have enough problems on their plate to risk raising the controversial idea of decriminalization.
Meanwhile, most provinces, including B.C., haven’t invested enough in the infrastructure to put a Portugal-style model in place.
This week, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy agreed that there are enormous gaps in B.C.’s fragmented system.
When the New Democrats were elected less than three years ago, she said the drug treatment system had been neglected for so long that it was not able to cope with regular tasks, let alone a public health emergency.
The government is taking steps to fix that. But whether it’s moving fast enough is a conversation that both the coroner and chief medical health officer are pushing British Columbians to have because the lives of many loved ones depend on it.
VICTORIA — Finance Minister Carole James is scrambling behind the scenes to keep B.C.’s budget from slipping into the red.
But some New Democrat supporters must be wondering if it’s even worth the hassle, in light of the recent federal election.
Voters there issued a collective shrug to the idea of years of government deficits, as long as the money would ease the cost pressures they are facing on all sides, from housing affordability to child care and health care.
Parties that had no plans to curtail deficit spending captured more than 55 per cent of the popular vote collectively. And only three per cent of uncommitted voters in an Angus Reid poll before voting day last month said debt and deficits were a top issue.
But back in B.C., James and the New Democrat government are still scrounging for every penny to keep their budget in the black.
The province’s second quarter financial results, to be released later this month, are expected to show James’s razor-thin $179-million surplus forecast under siege by a softening economy, slowing housing market, collapsing forestry sector and the roaring financial dumpster fire that is the Insurance Corp of B.C.
It may still be possible to keep the books balanced this year by blowing out contingency funds and cutting discretionary spending.
But what about next year’s budget, set to be tabled in February?
James is scraping that together right now as well. You can imagine what kind of miserly money management will be required to eke out a small surplus in the current circumstances — not to mention with the looming threat of a $1-billion court challenge to ICBC caps on minor injury claims.
It’s going to be ugly.
NDP supporters hoping to see accelerated $10-a-day child care, more money for unionized workers, and big boosts to core services like education, health care, welfare, disability and shelter rates can kiss those dreams goodbye.
All of which presents a dilemma for the government.
Does it want to spend the final two years of its mandate talking about prudence, caution, AAA credit ratings and all the other budgetary catchphrases famously uttered by the previous Liberal government as it wrestled away bus passes from the disabled and maternity benefits from low-income mothers in the name of modest surpluses?
Or does it embrace a deficit?
On its surface, that’s dangerous territory for New Democrats who have spent 16 years being painted by the B.C. Liberals as reckless financial managers for deficit budgets in the 1990s.
But again, look to last month’s federal campaign. Polls pointed to voter priorities of affordability, cost of living, climate change and health care — coincidentally, many of the central planks of the B.C. NDP’s 2017 election promises that won over urban voters in Metro Vancouver.
Perhaps there is a third option for the B.C. NDP government.
It doesn’t just slide into a small deficit while kicking, screaming and cutting the same services it promised the last election to increase. It uses the deficit as an opportunity to unshackle itself and make strategic investments in affordability programs with tangible benefits for cash-strapped British Columbians.
One option could be to immediately implement the $10-a-day child care plan that was a centrepiece of the last election but is set to be phased in over a decade.
That could cost as much as $1.5 billion. Would thousands of parents care about a $1.5 billion provincial government deficit if they stood to save hundreds of dollars a month in child care fees?
The same could be asked about a radical housing affordability plan. Or a resurrected renter’s rebate, aggressive electric vehicle subsidies, major boosts to transit, or funding for new family doctors.
Besides, the NDP knows that no matter what it does it’s going to be attacked by the Liberals for “killing the economy,” as Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson recently tweeted.
At least by picking an issue to hang the deficit on, the NDP would be daring the Liberals to campaign against it in the next election — whether that be scrapping the $10 a day child care program, or something else.
If Premier John Horgan is actually considering bold deficit spending, he’s not letting on.
“We have a downturn in the economy that is affecting the global economy, not just B.C.,” Horgan said when asked earlier this month.
“But I have read two banking reports this week that continue to show B.C. leading the country in economic growth.
“We are going to continue to do our best to protect services, first and foremost, and ensure that we can continue to keep our books balanced.”
Economists are split on the idea.
“Even if you get up to a deficit of a couple of billion of dollars, in the context of the B.C. economy, you’re looking at less than two thirds of one per cent of GDP and that’s still a relatively modest deficit that is not something to worry about,” said Alex Hemingway, an economist at the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
In the long-term, government should find additional revenue, said Hemingway. But some immediate deficit spending on key items like housing and child care could actually produce economic returns, he said.
“Those are investments that can actually pay off in a big way in the long term,” said Hemingway. “So I think you can just as easily argue that it’s economic folly not to not to make those investments where those social needs are real.”
Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president at the right-leaning B.C. Business Council, said the NDP’s budgets are already “poised on a knife’s edge” and the real solution is to craft an economic development plan.
“If you have a severe economic downtown, then running a budget deficit is much more defensible,” he said. “We’re not in that position. We have an economy still growing. It’s not growing as fast as it was two or three years ago, but it’s still growing above the Canadian average.
“The second conundrum is that you’re talking about things like forest revenue being down, ICBC financial challenges, these are sort of transitory, they are not permanent necessarily. But to start enriching ongoing social programs and the social safety net, then you are hardwiring permanent cost increases into what government does.”
Difficult choices for an NDP government staring at the back half of its mandate. But choices that may ultimately determine whether voters give the party a second term in control of the provincial purse strings.
As someone who has always voted for the NDP, I am concerned about some of this government’s approaches to severe mental illnesses, writes the mother of a daughter living with schizophrenia. Getty Images / PNG
Joy MacPhail, in her recent opinion piece, makes clear how pleased she is with the new provincial plan to improve mental health and addiction services. She believes that this plan, called A Pathway to Hope, can help “improve the well-being of all citizens.”
As the mother of a daughter living with schizophrenia, I disagree. Many unmet needs of adults living with the most severe psychotic disorders are not addressed.
MacPhail focuses on the high rate of hospitalization as evidence of the failure of the current mental health system. It is disappointing that she doesn’t acknowledge the many people with untreated psychotic disorders whose suffering is very visible on the streets of cities and towns throughout the province. Lack of treatment for this population leads to homelessness, victimization, addictions and incarceration.
The article seems to argue that all mental illnesses arise from negative social factors. It is unclear if MacPhail knows that psychotic disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder cannot be prevented. It is also unclear if she knows about anosognosia, the brain-based inability of many people in psychosis to understand that they are ill. This symptom leads people to reject treatment when they most need it.
It is good that increased funding will probably be used to expand B.C.’s too few Early Psychosis Intervention programs. These time-limited programs, unlike much of the rest of the mental health system, are known for educating clients and their families about the illnesses they are living with. I have seen how people who receive adequate psycho-education have a much better chance of understanding, accepting and learning to manage their illnesses.
Most people with schizophrenia can have their psychotic symptoms alleviated by anti-psychotic medications. However, there is widespread and ongoing disability in this population because psychotic disorders often involve significant cognitive losses. B.C.’s many influential anti-psychiatry/anti-medication activists should learn that these losses often appear before the use of any medications.
These cognitive losses include difficulties with concentration, short term and working memory, problem solving, judgement and social skills. These problems can make many of the tasks of daily living, including remembering to take medications and attend medical appointments, very difficult.
All clients and families need, but currently do not have, the chance to learn about these cognitive losses. As well, clients deserve access to the evidence-based cognitive remediation programs that exist in many other countries.
A coalition of representatives from the B.C. Schizophrenia Society, B.C.’s Early Psychosis Intervention programs, the B.C. Psychosis Program and B.C. Psychosocial Rehabilitation put on a sold-out conference in 2017 on Bringing Cognitive Remediation to British Columbia. This group has gone on to submit several proposals for training staff in implementing evidence-based cognitive remediation programs. So far, this government has chosen not to provide necessary funding.
As someone who has always voted for the NDP, I am concerned about some of this government’s approaches to severe mental illnesses. The recent recommendations from the B.C. Ombudsperson, for example, will embed the Community Legal Assistance Society in hospitals to provide advice to all involuntary inpatients. This is an organization fighting to abolish access to involuntary treatments.
Currently, nurses and social workers inform involuntary patients about their rights and about ways to access review panels to ensure that people are not receiving unnecessary treatments. Patients will soon receive advice and legal assistance from an organization that publicly doubts the value of anti-psychotic medications.
Hopefully, the NDP can be persuaded to better meet the needs of people with the most severe mental illnesses. Rather than spending millions of dollars on lawyers, the right kinds of services for this disadvantaged population could be implemented.
A lot of money is about to be spent on various mental wellness programs. Some of these funds should be used to improve mental illness literacy programs. Educating the public about psychotic disorders can increase their ability to help people access and stay engaged in essential services.
Susan Inman was an English and drama teacher at Windermere Secondary School for 24 years. She has a daughter living with schizophrenia.
Ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft should not be limited by geographic boundaries or caps on fleet sizes, and drivers should be allowed to work with Class-5 licences, according to a provincial legislative committee.
In November, the provincial government introduced legislation that will allow ride-hailing companies to operate in B.C., likely by late this year.
The nine-member, all-party select standing committee on Crown corporations was asked to look at four specific areas of regulation: boundaries, vehicle supply, fare and price regimes, and driver’s licence requirements.
On Tuesday, it released 11 recommendations after hearing from 15 witnesses and receiving 47 written submissions from municipalities, regional districts, First Nations, taxi associations, disability advocacy organizations and ride-hailing companies.
“I do hope that now government will see fit to keep the recommendations and get real ride-hailing in place and on the road in British Columbia,” said Surrey South Liberal MLA Stephanie Cadieux, who was the committee’s deputy chair.
Currently, taxi companies are limited by operating boundaries, which are set when a taxi licence is granted. They dictate where a taxi can pick up passengers, which can lead to deadheading — return trips without passengers — and ride refusals.
The committee said boundaries should not be imposed for ride-hailing companies. Instead, they considered other options to manage the distribution of vehicles, such as geofencing to redistribute supply and per-trip or per-kilometre fees to deal with congestion, if necessary.
Fleet sizes for ride-hailing companies should not be capped, the committee said, however it did not agree on other mechanisms to deal with supply and demand.
In the interest of safety and reducing emissions, the committee recommended that vehicles used for ride-hailing be no more than 10 years old.
On pricing, the committee said there should be a minimum per-trip price that is not less than the cost of public transit. A regular adult fare for someone who does not have a Compass card is $2.95 for one zone, and $5.70 for three zones.
They also agreed that the cost of a trip should be the same for an handicap-accessible vehicle and non-accessible vehicle.
Companies should be required to disclose the price for a trip on their apps before the customer orders a ride, and data should be monitored to see if a base rate or cap on surge pricing should be implemented. These recommendations were in a 2018 committee report.
The committee was not unanimous in its views on driver licensing, but a majority of members voted for a Class-5 licence requirement, rather than a Class-4. A Class-5 licence is what most drivers in B.C. hold.
“Members expressed uncertainty over whether the Class-4 licensing process actually produces safer drivers,” the report states.
They emphasized that driver rating systems could help identify safe drivers, and said driving record checks and medical exams could be required.
The committee also recommended that ride-hailing companies be required to provide data to the province for monitoring purposes, and that the province make that information available “to the broadest extent possible while maintaining privacy.”
It was recommended that the province review the regulations in 2023.
Committee member and B.C. Green spokesperson for transportation, MLA Adam Olsen, said the government now has the tools to make ride-hailing a reality.
“Ride-hailing will make transportation services more accessible for British Columbians, and the recommendations brought forward by our committee ensure that there would be a regulatory environment that promotes overall safety and a fair playing field,” said Olsen. “I hope government will implement these recommendations, which are informed by other jurisdictions.”
Ridesharing Now for B.C., a coalition advocating in favour of ride-hailing, urged the province to adopt the recommendations and move forward.
“Today’s report marks a major milestone in bringing ride-sharing to the province by the fall of 2019, as promised by the government,” said spokesperson Ian Tostenson. “It is time to get ride-sharing on the road by implementing the key recommendations and finalizing ride-sharing auto-insurance.”
To bridge the gap until ride-hailing is allowed in the province, a local company has started Kater, a ride-hailing app that will begin beta testing on Saturday.
People who have registered on the company’s website and been chosen to take part in the trial will be able to download the company’s app and order rides from Vancouver to anywhere in B.C. Kater will begin with a small number of vehicles and scale up to 140 within a few weeks.
The company will use Vancouver Taxi Association licences to operate and will be expected to abide by the existing rules — which include requiring a Class-4 licence, TaxiHost Pro certificate, and chauffeur-for-hire permit, and charging taxi rates — but use a typical ride-hailing app that takes payment and allows users to track their rides and rate drivers.
Albert Briggs plays drums as Melanie Mark, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training and MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant; and Kennedy Stewart, Mayor of Vancouver look on at the opening of Norah Hendrix Place. NICK PROCAYLO / PNG
Nora Hendrix has been described as a remarkable woman who was the glue that connected Vancouver’s early black community.
On Sunday, the provincial government and the City of Vancouver officially opened a temporary modular housing project in Strathcona named after Hendrix, to honour her legacy and that of the black community that was wiped out of the area in the 1960s.
“Ms. Hendrix was a tireless advocate for her community,” said Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson.
The province committed 17 months ago to building 2,000 units of temporary modular housing across the province, with 606 of those units in Vancouver. The provincial government pledged $66 million toward the Vancouver projects.
In Vancouver, 554 provincially-funded modular homes have already been opened on nine sites. Nora Hendrix Place, a three-storey building with 52 units that will be run by the Portland Hotel Society, is the final project to be completed in the city. It’s expected that people will start moving in this week.
“Hundreds of people are living outside with nowhere to sleep, use the washroom or get regular food and water, and this isn’t how you treat your neighbours,” said Mayor Kennedy Stewart. “We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure everyone is included and has a roof over their head.”
Stewart said the modular housing units are a testament to cooperation between multiple levels of government, non-profits and the community, and he looks forward to working on more in the future.
The studio units, built by Horizon North, are about 320 square feet each in size and have a kitchenette, bathroom, and a living/sleeping area. Six homes are wheelchair accessible. The building has an indoor amenity space, commercial kitchen, laundry facilities, administration office and meeting rooms for the staff and residents.
All new modular housing buildings have staff on site 24 hours a day and provide services and supports such as meals, education and work opportunities, healthcare, life skills, social and recreational programs, case planning and needs assessment and help navigating government services.
To honour its location in what used to be Hogan’s Alley and the woman it is named after, the housing project will have some services and supports geared specifically to the needs of the black and Indigenous communities, and members of those groups who are experiencing homelessness will be prioritized.
“Let’s call it what it is: This city has a history of anti-black racism, it has history of anti-Indigenous racism,” said Stewart. “It has a long history of racism that we’re addressing through reconciliation but I think today it’s also addressing damage of the past.”
Hendrix came to Vancouver in 1911 and became an important figure in the East End neighbourhood — now Strathcona — and Hogan’s Alley in particular, which at the time was home to Vancouver’s black community.
Hendrix started the Vancouver chapter of the African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel, where people gathered to pray and socialize. She also cooked at Vie’s Chicken and Steak House on Union, which was part of Hogan’s Alley. Her grandson, rock legend Jimi Hendrix, was known to visit the area during his childhood.
Many of the homes and businesses in the community were demolished to make way for the “urban-renewal projects” and the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.
“That monument to our oppression … was what displaced our community,” said June Francis, co-chair of the Hogan’s Alley society, gesturing to the Dunsmuir viaduct. “It displaced our hopes, it displaced our dreams, it displaced our businesses.”
The modular housing site will eventually be redeveloped as part of the city’s North East False Creek Plan, which calls for the black community to be honoured and what was formerly Hogan’s Alley to be a focal point. A black cultural centre is a centrepiece to the redevelopment, and the city hopes to employ land trusts and long-term leases to build the community.
Two initiatives that could make transit Metro Vancouver more accessible and affordable were missing from Tuesday’s provincial budget.
The region’s mayors have been advocating for funding for HandyDART, the door-to-door shared-ride service for people with disabilities, and a break on transit fares for people with low incomes and youths.
“We would have liked to have seen those programs included in this year’s budget,” said New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté, who chairs the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation.
For the past couple of years, both the council and TransLink, the regional transportation authority, have argued that the provincial government should help pay for HandyDART.
However, Coté said the majority of HandyDART trips are related to health services, such as dialysis or specialist appointments, and seeing some investment from the Ministry of Health would make sense.
“We think there is an argument to be made that there should be better support through the provincial government, just like the provincial government mainly funds those services throughout other parts of the province,” he said.
“That’s been a longstanding issue that the Mayors’ Council and TransLink have advocated for better support there.”
The budget did include some extra money for transit — and HandyDART — improvements, but for communities outside Metro Vancouver. It adds $21 million over three years for B.C. Transit to expand bus services in 30 urban and rural communities and make improvements to help seniors and people with disabilities.
LISTEN: This week on the In The House podcast, Mike Smyth and Rob Shaw discuss the 2019 BC NDP government budget – was it a prudent NDP spending plan or a missed opportunity to get its agenda done?
We also discuss the CleanBC plan, BC Green leader Andrew Weaver’s budget response and the BC Liberals struggling to define themselves within the budget debate.
A spokesperson for the HandyDART Riders Alliance could not be reached for comment, but on social media shortly after the budget was released on Tuesday, the group called the lack of specific funding for HandyDART “disappointing.”
Coté said he hopes increasing demand for HandyDART service will prompt more serious conversations with the province about a long-term, sustainable funding model so that TransLink can continue to provide the service.
Providing discounted transit passes for people with low incomes and free transit for youths under the age of 18 has been discussed around the Mayors’ Council table, Coté said, and such initiatives have been adopted in other major cities.
“I think the Mayors’ Council is very interested in the idea, but it’s something we strongly feel would be most appropriately funded through a provincial poverty reduction strategy,” Coté said.
Such a strategy was outlined in the budget, but details about the specific programs therein were not released. It’s expected that the public will hear more in the coming weeks.
Viveca Ellis, campaign organizer for #AllOnBoard, has been lobbying for a regional plan and provincial funding for making transit affordable and accessible for all people in the region.
“In the budget documents and the information that we have right now, we didn’t see anything specifically related to transit affordability and accessibility to transit for low-income people in the TransLink service region or any other region,” Ellis said.
“We’re looking forward to the release of the poverty reduction plan and seeing what will be addressed there in terms of affordable transit.”
Coté said the Mayors’ Council will move forward by formalizing their position on reducing transit fees for low-income earners and youths this spring.
“We do expect continued discussions on that regard there and hopefully future inclusion in budgets in coming years,” he said.
The budget did follow through on promised funding for major transportation infrastructure projects, including the Broadway subway line, for which $1.12 billion has been allocated over the next three years. The total cost of that project is $2.83 billion.
Finance Minister Carole James arrives to deliver the budget speech as she waves to people in the gallery at the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, February 19, 2018. CHAD HIPOLITO / THE CANADIAN PRESS
The B.C. NDP government’s second budget focused on tax breaks and benefits for people with children, students and businesses, and investments in clean energy and climate initiatives. Here’s a brief summary of how British Columbians will be affected.
The budget didn’t make any large strides toward $10-a-day child care beyond continuing funding for the government’s 2018 child care plan into 2021/2022 and increasing it by $9 million a year. The bigger news was the introduction of a B.C. Child Opportunity Benefit to replace the early childhood tax benefit, which currently provides families with up to $660 a year per child under the age of six.
The new benefit, which begins in October 2020, will provide families with one child up to $1,600 a year, with two children up to $2,600 a year and with three children up to $3,400 a year. Instead of ending at six years of age, the benefit will be paid until the child is 18.
Good news for British Columbians with student loans — no more interest payments. As of Tuesday, all B.C. student loans will stop accumulating interest, saving someone with $11,700 in provincial student loans $2,300 over the 10-year repayment period. This will cost the government $318 million.
The public education system will get a boost, with $2.7 billion set aside over three years to maintain, replace, renovate or expand facilities. There will also be $550 million invested to hire new teachers and special education assistants, and improve classrooms.
Community organizations will be provided with funding to operate rent banks to provide short-term loans with little or no interest to low-income tenants who can’t pay their rent because of a financial crisis. It will cost $10 million and be funded through the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction.
The implementation of a B.C.-wide rent bank system for low-income people was one of 23 recommendations delivered late last year from the Rental Housing Task Force struck by the B.C. government.
The climate action tax credit will be increased in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Starting July 1, the maximum credit will go up by 14 per centfor adults and children, meaning low- and middle-income families of four will receive up to $400 for this year.
More than $107 million in operating funding will provide incentives for battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (up to $6,000), incentives for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, incentives for home charging stations, as well as other programs.
Pharmacare program will be expanded with an additional $42 million to cover more drugs, including those for diabetes, asthma and hypertension. An additional $30 million will be invested in tackling the drug overdose crisis, bringing the total investment since 2017 to $608 million. Mental health programs focused on prevention and early intervention for children, youth and young adults will be funded to the tune of $74 million.
As promised previously, Medical Services Plan premiums will be fully eliminated on Jan. 1, 2020, saving families up to $1,800 per year.
Income and disability assistance rates will be increased by a $50 a month, a total increase of $150 a month (or $1,800 a year) since the 2017 budget update. Before 2017, the rates had not been increased for a decade. This will cost an extra $44 million over three years.
A homelessness plan will invest $76 million in land acquisition and services to build 200 more modular homes, bringing the total to 2,200 units.
VICTORIA — B.C.’s NDP government delivered a stand-pat budget Tuesday that offered little new spending on its priority housing and child care agendas, but did unveil modest funds for student loans and clean energy incentives.
Finance Minister Carole James tabled a $58-billion 2019/20 spending plan for the fiscal year starting April 1, with a $274 million surplus. There are no new tax increases beyond those already announced last year on high income earners, corporations, luxury homes and the carbon tax.
However, there is new small-scale spending, such as $31 million this year to eliminate interest rates on student loans — a move government estimates will save an average undergrad student with $11,200 in loans roughly $2,300 in interest.
“We were very pleased to see that coming in the budget,” said Noah Berson, chairperson of the Alliance of B.C. Students.
It applies to all existing student loans as well, effective immediately.
“The past government racked up surpluses simply for the case of surpluses while not investing in people,” said James. “We are looking for a balanced approach … while also making sure we invest in people who help build that strong economy.”
The budget offered only $9 million in new spending for child care in the coming year, which is on top of $1 billion announced in the last budget spread over three years.
The hold-the-line spending meant the current hybrid system of subsidies and 53 pilot locations for $10-a-day child care won’t be significantly expanded in the coming year, according to ministry officials. Nor was there any signal when full $10-a-day child care — a key NDP election promise from 2017 — may become a reality.
James said there’s still $366 million in child care funding occurring this year from her previous announcements, even if it was not re-announced in this budget.
“Lets remember the child care plan is phased in over time,” she said. “Over the next year you’ll see the minister and ministry doing evaluation of the prototype of $10-a-day and looking at how we expand those.”
Child care advocate Sharon Gregson said she still believes the government is on track by increasing funding incrementally every year despite not making a big deal of re-announcing it. She said she expects the pilot locations and subsidies to increase this year, even if government doesn’t.
“They’ve got room within this funding envelope to do that,” said Gregson. “Now we want to make sure they are spending the money the right way.”
Housing affordability also held to its $7-billion spending plan over 10 years, with a $9 million increase in the budget for “incremental housing initiatives” and more homeless modular housing.
There was no sign of the $400 annual renters rebate promised by the NDP in the 2017 election, which is opposed by the NDP’s power-sharing partners, the B.C. Greens.
“It is something we’re working on with our Green colleagues,” said James. Government is creating a provincially backed rent bank for those who fall behind on their rent and need help to avoid eviction.
James announced a new “Child Opportunity Benefit” as a key new budget promise that would provide up to $1,600 a year for a child, through monthly deposits to families on an income-tested scale.
“We really want to make sure we have the opportunity for every child to thrive and provide more help to families in raising those children,” she said.
“So I’m very proud that budget 2019 introduces the child opportunity benefit. This really is a historic investment, and puts dollars in the pocket of middle class families.”
But the program does not actually start until October 2020 — meaning it is not even part of the coming fiscal year.
Therefore, there’s no money set aside to fund the program in the coming year, and no cheques in the mail for almost 20 months. James said that’s because it takes a year’s notice for B.C. to get the Canada Revenue Agency to agree to help with the administration of the program.
James reiterated the elimination of Medical Services Plan premiums this year — which are replaced with an Employer Health Tax — combined with future credits like the child benefit could be considered in one of the largest middle-class tax breaks in provincial history.
The government’s ambitious plan to promote clean electricity use to hit its pollution-reduction targets, called CleanBC, received $902 million over three years in the budget.
The money will fund already-existing climate action tax credit cheques, as well extend for a year the current $6,000 point-of-sale rebate on electric vehicles, $2,000 to replace a fossil fuel burning furnace with an electric heat pump and $1,000 to upgrade windows and doors to be better insulated.
Some programs, such as electric vehicles subsidies, have been so popular in the past that they’ve run out of money and had to be topped up by government during the year, said James.
The government had set up expectations of a fully funded poverty reduction plan to be unveiled this year.
However, there was almost no mention of such a plan in the budget.
Instead, the budget outlined a $50 monthly increase to disability and income assistance levels — which advocates have already said are so low they need a major spike in order to provide a livable foundation for the poor.
“We know more needs to be done to make income and disability assistance more accessible,” said James.
“You’ll hear more about this as the poverty plan comes forward in the spring with more specifics.”
That disappointed advocates like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which said the $50 monthly increase was insufficient.
“I think we could have done more,” said senior economist Iglika Ivanova. “I think we definitely have the fiscal capacity.”
She said she can see the outlines of a poverty reduction plan on the horizon, but that the new child benefit tax program won’t help as much as government claimed.
“No children and families on welfare will be lifted out of poverty by this child benefit,” she said. “It is not big enough.”
Other small-scale new spending initiatives in the budget include $74 million over three years for new mental health and addictions programs for children, and redirecting $297 million in gaming revenue to share with First Nations over three years.
James said there’s flexibility built into the budget for unanticipated spending, both in a $500 million forecast allowance as well as a $750 million contingency fund. There’s also $553 million set aside for bargaining mandates.
James said the provincial economy remains the healthiest in Canada, with forecasts of the Gross Domestic Product increased to 2.4 per cent in part due to the new Canada-United States-Mexico trade agreement.
“It’s a budget strong on the social side and quite weak on the economic development side,” said Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president of the B.C. Business Council. “It’s complacent. It says the relatively strong economy we’ve been operation on will continue. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true.”
Finlayson said James deserves credit for holding back on large spending initiatives and pressure within her party to spend big.
“The fiscal and economic projections I think are credible,” said Finlayson.
The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade gave the budget a “B-“ rating, calling it “a steady as we go budget” built on last year’s tax increases.
A cooling housing market is estimated to cut into property transfer tax revenue, lowing it from $2.2 billion to $1.9 billion. B.C. Housing starts are expected to drop almost 33 per cent by 2023, compared to the final year of the previous Liberal government.
However, the government does not necessarily think lower construction and sales will translate into lower prices for housing.
“The average home sale price in B.C. is expected to increase moderately over the forecast horizon,” read the budget.
James said she’s still pleased with what she sees.
“We’re finally starting to see some moderation,” she said of housing. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
But she said the government wants more “moderation” in prices
“I don’t think we’re at that stage to say housing is affordable particularly in our metro centres,” she said.
Paul Kershaw, of Generation Squeeze, said the housing measures “were resting on last year’s laurels” but the government deserved credit for at least trying to influence the market.
Kershaw said he wished government would act on incentivizing municipalities to approve more density in communities that would allow for more purpose-built rental housing.
The government has already introduced a speculation tax as well as surcharges on homes valued at more than $3 million, as part of a 30-point plan James said needs more time.
The budget predicts a stunning turnaround at the Insurance Corp. of B.C., which Attorney General David Eby has called a “dumpster fire” financially and is on track to lose $1.18 billion this year. ICBC’s finances should reverse to only a $50 million loss in the coming year, after government institutes a new $5,500 cap on pain and suffering claims for minor injuries as well as other legal reforms, according to the budget. By 2020/21 ICBC is predicted to be back in the black.
“All of us and I as finance minister feel some frustration that these change didn’t occur early and we’re faced with this kind of fiscal challenge in our budget,” James said of ICBC.
Health care spending, the single largest item in the annual budget, is budgeted to rise almost $1 billion to $20.8 billion, or roughly 36 per cent of all government spending. Some of that is for expanded cancer services and improved access to drugs, though much appears to be the simple growth in the cost of delivering health care services.
Elementary and secondary school funding is budgeted to grow $197 million. The government says it has hired more than 4,000 teachers and restored $423 million in extra funding annually to the system after the Supreme Court of Canada decision on class size and composition.
An increase in capital spending for transportation, health, schools and other infrastructure will also grow the total provincial debt from $67.9 billion to more than $82 billion in 2021/22, an increase of almost 21 per cent.
Almost four cents of every dollar of revenue is set to be used to pay for interest on debt. James said the debt-to-GDP ratio on taxpayer-supported debt — a key metric credit agencies use when awarding B.C. a AAA credit rating — remains affordable at an estimated 15 per cent.
“British Columbia is thriving,” said James. “We have a balanced budget across the fiscal track. We’re the only province with a AAA credit rating …
but we will never have a truly prosperous province unless everyone in British Columbia can share in that prosperity.”
The B.C. government’s new budget will probably look a lot like its old budget. That is deliberate, says Finance Minister Carole James, because the governing New Democratic Party’s priorities haven’t changed: affordable housing, child care and climate change.
“What we’re looking at is budget 2019 basically building on what we did in budget 2018,” James said of the budget she’ll deliver on Tuesday.
“We started off with a shift in approach from the previous government, where they really told people you either had to have a strong economy or investments in people. It was either-or. Our budget really said we need both.”
There’s another reason for the similarities between this year and last year: The NDP government’s biggest promises on affordable housing and daycare are 10-year visions that aren’t even close to fruition. Each year, James said, she’ll put aside more money to try to get closer to specific election promises like $10-a-day child care.
“Young families haven’t had a lot of hope in British Columbia, in our urban centres in particular,” said James. “They’ve seen their costs rise and struggled to get by, whether it be on housing or child care. So we’re really focused on how we can give back hope to those families.”
There will be one major difference, however. Most of the revenue-generating measures the NDP promised in the 2017 election — tax increases on high-income earners, corporations, luxury homes and the increased carbon tax — have already been enacted. James might have to curtail some spending ambitions unless she can find new sources of cash for the provincial treasury.
Despite a healthy surplus, the province’s fiscal security is at risk with the financial meltdown at the Insurance Corp. of B.C. — where losses could reach $2.5 billion over two years — and a $1-billion taxpayer bailout on deferral accounts at B.C. Hydro.
“ICBC and B.C. Hydro have been a huge challenge to the budget, a huge challenge to families and the public when it comes to the dollars they’ve had to take on for the messes left us,” said James.
“But it’s a big issue and I continue to be concerned. It’s not a piece I feel comfortable about. We’re headed in the right direction and making changes we need to occur. But there’s a cost to that.”
Last year, Postmedia spoke with several people about what they were hoping to see in the February 2018 budget, including a prospective homebuyer, a renter, a mother and a businessman.
We’ve caught up with those people to find out if the improvements they had hoped for in 2018 happened — as well as their wish lists for the NDP’s second full budget on Tuesday.
LISTEN: Mike Smyth and Rob Shaw answer all the important questions raised by the B.C. NDP government’s throne speech. Why all the populist measures? Can the B.C. government really act on changing your cellphone bill? What do allies and critics think of the speech? Smyth and Shaw also talk about Liberal MLA Linda Reid having to resign her assistant deputy speaker’s job and Premier John Horgan resisting calls for a public inquiry into money laundering.
The main theme of the NDP’s throne speech on Feb. 12 was affordability, and the government focused on several areas that include tackling expensive ferry fares, stopping mass ticket-buying by scalpers and taming sky-high cellphone bills. But the speech offered little new on the main reason B.C. is expensive: the cost of homes.
Housing affordability was a key campaign promise when the NDP was elected in 2017. But to help renters, the throne speech made only a general promise to “speed up much-needed rental housing” and a vague prediction that rock-bottom vacancy rates would rise.
Last year at this time, Liam McClure, of the Vancouver Renters Union, hoped the 2018 budget would include specific measures, such as a rent freeze, improved tenant rights language to deal with issues such as renovictions, and the creation of more social housing.
But renters are still waiting for significant action.
“We just haven’t seen the movement in the last year that we were hoping for, and it has been a bit of a disappointment,” McClure said.
“I think at the provincial level there hasn’t been as much energy as we’ve seen at the municipal level in terms of putting forward policies and solutions for some of the problems we are seeing.”
Last fall, the government accepted a Rental Housing Task Force recommendation to keep 2019 rental increases by landlords to the rate of inflation (2.5 per cent), rather than the 4.5 per cent hike recommended by the residential tenancy branch. This was helpful to renters, McClure said.
But the task force, which consists of three MLAs appointed last April by the premier, stopped short of backing a key idea that many tenants’ advocates, including McClure, believe is important: so-called vacancy control, which would tie rent controls to the unit, not the tenant, to stop a landlord from jacking up the rent when a new person moves in. Landlords were happy this policy was not endorsed, saying it gives them more money to invest in rental stock.
The task force’s top recommendation was to end renovictions — when landlords evict long-term tenants to renovate and then find new residents at higher rents. But McClure said the suggested changes don’t go far enough, and he would like to see stronger language in this year’s budget.
“I don’t have my hopes up, but I’m interested in hearing what they are going to do around ending renoviction because we haven’t had enough movement,” he said.
He would also like the budget to include funding for more social housing and non-market homes for low-income families and individuals.
Last year, the government introduced a speculation tax and a tax surcharge on homes valued at more than $3 million, part of a 10-year plan to help build up to 114,000 new affordable homes.
What is different going into this year’s budget is that home prices are falling, which has benefited Jodi Harris — who just bought a townhouse in Langley after trying to get into the real estate market for the past 18 months.
The lower prices allowed her to remain in Metro Vancouver, as the frustrated woman had been house hunting in areas like the Okanagan, which has slightly lower real estate prices. “I had prepared to leave the Lower Mainland. I really didn’t see my housing prospects changing,” Harris said.
She believes the province’s speculation tax played a role in dropping home values. “I think the frenzy around purchasing is starting to diminish.”
But she stresses the provincial government should not let its guard down because she knows many young professionals still struggling to buy their first home. Even as a nurse practitioner at Royal Columbian Hospital, and making a higher-than-average salary, she had extreme challenges buying a modest home.
“I don’t think any millennial has illusions of grandeur, that they will walk into (buying) a detached home,” she said. “I don’t know how everyone can be so short-sighted with this problem. You need young people to power the economy.”
Jock Finlayson, of the B.C. Business Council, said he believes the speculation tax has played a role in lowering prices for large homes and high-end condos, but he believes the federal government’s move to “tighten up mortgage rules coupled with higher borrowing costs has really been the key to the broader softening of the market.”
James says the speculation tax is just one element in her government’s 30-point housing plan. She promised to continue to boost the housing supply, although she offered no specifics. She also promised to improve transparency around home ownership and to create a condo flipping registry.
“I’m feeling cautiously optimistic in looking at the housing market right now. We’re seeing some shifts in all types of housing, a moderating of prices in detached homes, townhomes and condos. That’s really critical,” she said.
Child care: the $10 challenge
Tamara Herman put her son’s name on multiple waiting lists for licensed child care more than four years ago, before the boy was born, and he still does not have a spot in a daycare.
Even though the NDP promised universal $10-a-day child care when the party was elected in 2017, Herman is patient because she believes this government is moving toward positive change, albeit slowly.
“Our situation hasn’t changed because it is going to take many years to repair a completely broken child care system,” said Herman, whose 3½-year-old son, Emil Porter, is in the care of a nanny collective.
“It’s a little late for us personally, but I’m encouraged to see that progress is being made in general on child care … for the first time in many years.”
After the throne speech, Premier John Horgan said this year’s plan will likely include the continued development of the government’s fee-reduction subsidies of up to $350 a month and pilot projects of the $10-a-day model.
Herman is happy the NDP is investigating the $10 model, arguing it puts families back to work and therefore reduces poverty, but is “less enthusiastic” about the fee- reduction subsidies. “Instead of subsidizing individual parents, I’d rather see them investing in building more child cares and making it a fair industry for people who work in the field.”
Opponents of the universal $10 model argue it will be too expensive and will unnecessarily subsidize middle- and high-income families who can afford to pay for their own child care.
However, Sharon Gregson, with the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C. which has long lobbied for the $10 plan, hopes Tuesday’s budget will fund an expansion of the prototypes. She would also like the budget to include moving child care out of the Ministry of Children and Family Development and into the Education Ministry to become better aligned with the school system. She also wants a pledge of $200 million to build more licensed spaces and to train more workers.
“There has been more positive action on child care in the last 10 months than in the preceding 16 years,” Gregson said.
“(But) there’s still lots to do and it’s not perfect. Families need much more access to licensed spaces — especially non-traditional hours and in rural and remote communities — and early childhood educators need better wages.”
James said the government has 53 sites in B.C. testing the $10 plan, and that residents must wait for the government to finish designing its new child care plan to ensure quality, space and accessibility.
“It’s a 10-year program and we’re only going into year 2,” the finance minister said. “We have a review program going on on the prototypes for $10-a-day to make sure we see how they went and successes, and are there any pieces that need to be adjusted. And so that will be part of the work over the next year.”
She added that child care is the topic that most residents raise with her. “Despite the speculation tax and housing measures, it’s probably the biggest piece I get stopped by families to tell me the biggest change it’s made for them.”
The fiscal reality: taxes and spending
The NDP has now enacted most of the new taxes it had promised, including a one per cent hike to the corporate income tax rate, an income tax increase for those who earn more than $150,000, and those taxes on high-end and empty homes.
But besides the woes at ICBC and BC Hydro, though, there is mounting financial pressure on the NDP because the cooling housing market has reduced property transfer fees.
“There are some new revenue sources but that’s being chipped away by the decline in (home) sales, and therefore property transfers. So I’ll be looking to see how does the arithmetic on all that add up,” the B.C. Business Council’s Finlayson said when asked about budget finances.
“We are not going into the (budget) lockup assuming there’s going to be a lot of tax changes. Sometimes you are surprised.”
If there are no new taxes, it’s not clear where the NDP will get more revenue to fund new ideas or the growth of big-ticket programs.
There is good news for the province’s bottom line, though, in that the economy is still strong, the carbon tax is set to rise from $35/tonne to $40/tonne on April 1, and the previous Liberal government’s $500-million Prosperity Fund remains available.
Finlayson would like to see a small reduction in one of the NDP’s taxes, arguing the tax bracket for higher income taxes should rise from $150,000 to $250,000, to align with policies in Alberta and Ontario. He also wishes for some type of relief for the industries that are the most affected by the increasing carbon tax.
Still, Finlayson anticipates James will produce a balanced operating budget. He would like to see a slight increase on the capital projects side — but wants B.C.’s current debt-to-GDP ratio of 14 per cent to stay below 20 per cent so that the province can hold on to its triple-A rating.
“We think there is a lot of unmet need for capital, both maintenance and to build new bridges and tunnels and infrastructure,” he said.
The throne speech was silent, he said, on attracting business investment in B.C. “To me that sends a signal that the budget won’t have much around building the economy. Because that has not been much of a major focus of this government. Their agenda has been more social and environmental.”
Climate change, poverty reduction and other priorities
There are other items that are expected to be crucial elements in Tuesday’s budget.
Climate change, once dominated by discussion of the carbon tax, has taken on a new face with the NDP’s CleanBC plan. It is an aggressive proposal to increase electricity use across the province and reduce fossil fuel pollution from cars, homes and businesses. The budget is expected to lay out incentives for items such as heat pumps and electric vehicles.
Other issues that could be touched on in the budget include tackling money laundering, although the premier has deflected calls for a public inquiry; potential costs associated with the promise of historic legislation to enshrine into law the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and past promises to boost staffing levels in seniors’ care homes and reform the annual school funding formula.
The throne speech did pledge to roll out a poverty reduction strategy, after the government initially promised to do so last year. That could come with a hefty price tag.
“Certainly the throne speech is a roadmap, the aspirational road map for the government for the year ahead,” Horgan told reporters after the speech.
“The budget will be where you will find the resources, the funds, and the initiatives that we talked about. When we brought forward legislation on the poverty reduction plan, and when we brought forward our CleanBC plan, it was with the view of funding those initiatives in the coming budget. And I know Carole James is very excited to tell you about that herself (on Tuesday).”
Health Minister Adrian Dix announced that as of Jan. 1, B.C. households earning up to $30,000 in net income annually no longer have to pay a Fair PharmaCare deductible. Nick Procaylo / PNG
B.C. has eliminated Fair Pharmacare deductibles for families earning less than $30,000 and reduced deductibles for families earning between $30,000 and $45,000.
Low-income seniors and individuals will see co-payments eliminated, meaning their prescriptions will be fully covered by the plan, if they qualify, said Health Minister Adrian Dix.
Before the new rules kicked in Jan. 1, families that qualified for Fair Pharmacare would have to pay some of their prescription costs out of pocket before receiving coverage.
A family with an annual income of just $11,250 would have paid $200 before Pharmacare would begin to pay. Households with a net annual income between $15,000 and $30,000 were paying $300 to $600 out-of-pocket before coverage assistance began.
Ministry data show that people in income bands affected by the deductibles were skipping their prescriptions, possibly to pay for other living expenses, said Dix.
“No one should have to make the difficult decision between their family’s health and putting food on the table,” said Dix. “We know that for many working households, needed prescriptions were going unfilled too often because Fair PharmaCare deductibles were too high.”
A 2014 study by the Institute for Research on Public Policy found that seniors were particularly poorly served by income-based pharmacare coverage. B.C. switched from age-based coverage in 2003 to contain rising program costs.
Faced with paying the full price of prescriptions until the minimum threshold of $1,000, B.C. seniors have been less likely to fill prescriptions, said lead author Steve Morgan, director of the Centre for Heath Services and Policy Research at the University of B.C.
Several Canadian studies have found that British Columbians were twice as likely to report skipping medications for financial reasons (7.1 per cent, according to one study) compared seniors in Ontario, where their drug costs are minimal.
When people skip medications for chronic conditions, the costs tend to turn up in other parts of the health care system, such as more frequent hospitalization.
Fair Pharmacare serves about 240,000 families in B.C., including people in long-term residential care and income assistance clients. The average drug expenditure per patient is about $1,600 a year.
The provincial government has budgeted $105 million to pay for coverage improvements.
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