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Hay River board wary

Dave Sullivan
Northern News Services

Hay River (Oct 08/01) - A board overseeing Hay River's health and social system is resisting wholesale changes that would see a handover of much authority to the territorial government.

A move to centralize much of the system is a setback for the Hay River Health and Social Services Board, because it was looking forward to acting on an earlier recommendation that would have seen it grow.

Instead, the board joins others in NWT which could lose out from government plans to streamline the way services are offered. The Cuff Report, released last June, proposes cutting the number of NWT health boards to three from nine. Hay River, as one of three remaining boards, would become larger than it is now. In the government's proposal, just two boards would be eliminated.

The government says there could still be room for the Hay River Board to grow, but that will depend on the outcome of self-government talks that encompass Fort Smith, Fort Resolution and Lutsel K'e.

They "may want to align with the Hay River Board for services," said associate deputy health minister Debbie DeLancey.

On Oct. 1, board vice-chairman Larry Kathan met with town council to rally political support against the changes. But he says that's hard to do while details of government plans remain sketchy.

Kathan appealed to the town's not wanting residents to be transferred out, and pride the community has running the system well by itself. Hay River took over delivering health and social services in 1996, after the Pentecostal Church said it no longer wanted to. There were fears the GNWT would move then to downgrade the hospital to a nursing station.

On the new plan to centralize hiring of doctors, nurses and social workers in Yellowknife to aid more remote areas, Kathan predicts "there will be a deterioration of services. A loss of people, loss of local salaries going into the economy."

"The town may not be in a position to appoint a board and won't be in a position to influence policy," he told councillors.

DeLancey confirms that communities will no longer have final say over board appointments, and that Hay River's contract to run the system will be re-worked.

Kathan is also worried that workers will feel no loyalty to the town if their employer is not community-based, but DeLancey counters that each employment contract will be tied to a specific community.

Kathan says workers are also worried about seniority and pension benefits. DeLancey says those issues haven't been worked out, but talks are underway with unions.

Mayor Duncan McNeill points out the government's intent used to be "to empower local communities."

"They're not proposing to take all that away but that's what will happen. I don't want to find out two years from now it did deteriorate."

DeLancey says "We fragmented the system and now we need to step back.

"We're trying to set up a structure in the South Slave that recognizes we need to take some of the smaller boards and wrap them up because they just aren't working."

Central hiring is important, she said, because of duplication and competition between boards recruiting employees. DeLancey says staff won't be forced to leave central areas like Hay River for more remote communities.

She said the changes are not being designed to save any of the $183 million spent on health and social services.