HALIFAX -- Nova Scotia's Tories and NDP have pinpointed health care as the Liberals' Achilles heel as the election campaign enters its final days, hoping to convince voters it is in crisis and they can fix it.
The Progressive Conservatives planned to hold a rally on health care in South Berwick, N.S., Wednesday, while the NDP promised to work to fix primary care problems by consulting with doctors, nurse practitioners and nurses.
Earlier Wednesday, Tory Leader Jamie Baillie blamed the incumbent Liberals for a string of health care problems, from doctor shortages to emergency room closures and a lack of mental health services.
Baillie admitted the system has struggled for years, and a string of governments seemed unable to fix persistent problems. But he then quickly brought the blame back to the Liberals.
"I've heard (Premier) Stephen McNeil say this problem goes back a long way. That's true but it's also a cop-out," said Baillie.
"We can take action now to make health care better. To just say this has been a problem for a long time is to actually refuse to acknowledge the crisis that exists."
McNeil said Wednesday Baillie is trying to "scare people."
"We know there are challenges in certain parts of the communities ... and we are putting out positive solutions that Nova Scotians are looking for," he said while on a campaign stop in Cape Breton.
Baillie said the first step in fixing the system's problems is realizing how acute they are in areas such as mental health -- something he said the Liberals haven't done.
He said a Progressive Conservative government elected in next Tuesday's election would spend $39.7 million over four years to bolster mental health services.
The money would be used to hire more mental health professionals to bring down wait lists and provide mental health training in all schools as a preventive measure. The Tory plan also includes $8 million over four years to build four crisis centres.
"We will work with ... doctors and counsellors and psychiatrists to identify the best place to put them," Baillie said. "That is the right way to go forward."
NDP Leader Gary Burrill announced Wednesday that the party would accept the recommendations in a recent position paper on primary care by Doctors Nova Scotia and would work with doctors on a new pay model for physicians and to develop a doctor recruitment and retention strategy.
In an interview, Burrill said health care is the number one issue he hears on people's doorsteps.
He said his party believes improvements can be made by setting priorities, working with professionals to identify needs, and then properly funding those areas.
"These three things in my own judgment have been missing and they are three things that we can bring," Burrill said.
McNeil stressed that his government's creation of a single health authority would allow for more investments in front-line care, including mental health. Earlier in the campaign, the Liberals promised $34 million over four years to hire 35 new mental health clinicians for communities and for schools across the province.
McNeil admitted that promises of better days ahead mean little to people affected by the system's shortcomings now.
"Those who don't have a physician are feeling the system needs instant improvement," he said. "But one thing we know as a province is short-term fixes don't solve the problem. This needs to be a long-term, thoughtful strategy to make sure that we get to a system that's actually sustainable."
In a report last June, the province's auditor general, Michael Pickup, said the entire health system needs revamping and a plan to deal with aging facilities that are draining resources from front-line care.
Pickup stopped just short of suggesting hospital closures as part of the solution, but did say the current capacity of the province's 41 hospitals "may not be the most efficient way to deliver health care."
Burrill outright rejects the idea of hospital closures, while both Baillie and McNeil deflect the issue.
"The problem isn't the number of buildings that we have," said Baillie. "The problem is that families aren't getting the help that they need."