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INTERVIEW: Katrine Conroy on her recent appointment to Seniors critic and the ongoing leadership race

When the BC legislature sits again on February 14th to kick off what is expected to be a very short session, Kootenay Boundary MLA Katrine Conroy will be sitting with the familiar title of Seniors' and Long Term Care critic in the NDP’s shadow cabinet. 

Conroy, who was one of thirteen party dissidents this past fall who forced the ultimate resignation of leader Carole James, appears to be settling back into the party and its caucus under interim leader Dawn Black. Black named Conroy to the modified position that she last held two years ago as Seniors' Critic. Long term care has now been brought under her umbrella as well.
This week The Telegraph caught up with Conroy while she was home to talk about her new position. We probed her thoughts on seniors' issues and how she plans to help tackle them as well as her thoughts on the NDP leadership race.
You’re back in a familiar position Seniors Critic along with the added Long Term Care portfolio. What would you say in this region and the province as a whole are the biggest issues out there facing our seniors that you’ll be working on tackling and have they changed, improved or worsened since you last held this position?
 I think it’s most interesting and telling that in our region we still have a significant wait list for long term housing and care. You can get estimated wait lists from facilities providing supportive housing. When we called around to facilities they were averaging about 50 people on their wait lists. Some have a low of 20 and some a high of 100. This issue has to be looked at provincially. We have the lowest numbers of long term residential are beds available for seniors in this province in the country. Not a lot has changed since I was last critic two years ago. So that’s disheartening
What are you planning to bring to the role this time around? Are there any particular issues you’ll be focusing on?
Being a voice for seniors. We know there are issues with rental costs that seniors are paying in residential facilities and those fees keep going up. When you are looking at seniors who have a very limited income, many of them low to modest; if their shelter fees go up, it is leaving them with less money to pay for their basic needs like medical supplies and little extras they have to pay for. It’s tough for seniors. The rates have gone up 10% roughly and that’s fairly substantial for many of the seniors that are making $20,000 a year and you’re looking at $2,000 for long term care. It’s across the province that issue that seniors and health authorities are struggling to pay the increased rates. The rates just got jacked up again in January. I’ve got to get out there and talk to seniors and the health authorities to get around and hear what the issues are.
A part of seniors care as well as all residents care is our hospitals. What would you do if the NDP were in power now to maintain our hospitals, KBRH, Castlegar and Nelson?
Services are being increasingly centralized. I think that’s part of the problem that the Liberal government seems to be focused on centralizing care so that people have to leave the area for services. People in this area know that we’re not going to get all service in our area but there are basic services we should be able to get. We’ve been really outspoken about that. For example people that need shots for the glaucoma in their eyes. They were streamlining that so everybody had to go to Cranbrook. They had discussions about that and now they are finally bringing it back and it looks like they are going to have a service for that in Nelson. You just have to keep on the government for things like that. There are things that have to be provided in a centralized way but there are things that are best treated in the local area so you don’t have to travel outside of your community.
Interior Health has recently notified local municipalities to perhaps consider saving for a new line improvement called New KBRH. At this stage many suspect that could mean a new central hospital for the region. Would you support a new KBRH or construction of one central hospital for the region?
That would be such a long term situation. It would be interesting to see it happen. It’s been an issue of discussion for years and it never seems to come to fruition, but I don’t expect it to happen any time soon. Right now our focus has to be on the existing services and looking at what we can do better in the region, what needs to be fixed, what does need to be closed down. I really think we need to look at the services regionally and how we can make them better for people now.
What steps will you be pushing for the government to take to help improve the health care system for seniors?
First of all, we have to make sure there is affordable housing certainly we have to look at providing better home support services. We know it’s far more cost effective to have people live at home in their own bed in a place they are comfortable. If you have proper home support care that comes in and provides that kind of support to keep them in their homes it will save a lot more money longer term and the studies have shown that. It seems ridiculous that we can’t get to the point that we are providing that. I’ve look at other countries that provide high levels of home care. Their seniors live at home far longer than what statistics are showing here in BC and Canada. It’s better for the health of the seniors, better for mental health and it’s just a better way of doing it and in the long run. It saves money so you can provide other services for people that need it at the hospitals. The home support services need to be ramped up.
One of the reasons cited by the breakaway group of 13 that called for James’ resignation was a need to bring new life to the party. Looking at the group of candidates are you happy with the field? Do you think you’ve achieved that goal?
I’m waiting to hear what everybody’s issues are, what their policies are going to be and how they propose to bring the group back together. How they are going to move forward? We have an opportunity to re-frame the party and move forward so I’m waiting to talk to all of the candidates. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to do that, but I’m going to do that before I make my final decision on supporting anyone.
I’m talking to different people about it to get a sense of where I need to go on this and I’m getting very close to making up my mind.
Is there a candidate in that group that you think can win the next election?
That’ll be how I make up my mind. Is it someone that will have a strong voice, a strong vision for the province? Because as far as I’m concerned at the next election that person will be the next premier. I want to make sure that person has the ability to run the province the way it should be run and not how it has been.
It’s an interesting contrast right now looking at the situation in Egypt in which the public are extremely engaged in the political process. Do you think the public is engaged in the BC leadership races? Do they care?
It’s an interesting question. We’ve had new members come on board. I don’t’ have that final tally yet for our area but a fair number of people were calling and wanting to renew their memberships and some are becoming members for the first time. I think the same thing is happening in other areas too. It’s been interesting talking to people and getting their thoughts on it. People are looking for renewal and moving forward and making sure that we are the voice of the people of the province.
Any predictions for the upcoming sitting of the legislature?
We’ll be going in for a throne speech on Feb 14th and a budget on the 15th. We believe we’ll be in the house maybe two more days and then probably won’t be in again until after the leadership races are finished which is April. Then there are rumours depending on who wins as far as the Liberals are concerned that we might not have a sitting until the fall.
The new leaders will need to get organized; the new Liberal leader, he or she will be the premier so they will have to get their cabinet established and put their mark on how they are going to set up shop as far as that goes. We understand that they are going to wait until our new leader is chosen before they do anything. Most of the candidates have said that.
The only one who has insinuated she’d call a snap election is Christy Clark. I think she needs to rethink that, though, as Elections BC just said that would be impossible so I’m not sure how she’ll pull that off now that we have set election dates in BC. It takes a while to get organized to run an election. The earliest we could do it is sounding like June. From the sounds of things most people are saying they would stick with the established election dates and we’ll be sitting in the House of Commons by May perhaps.
Between now and getting back to the house later this month for the introduction of an interim Liberal budget what will you be doing to ramp up into it again?
I’m just really looking forward to meeting the seniors in the region and reconnecting with old friends. From what I’ve heard thus far the issues for seniors haven’t changed too much in the last couple of years since I was last in this post.