Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will meet with Canada’s premiers next month to hammer out a deal on health-care following months of impasse between Ottawa and the provinces over health funding.
But despite a united call from the premiers for a funding increase to come in the form of an across-the-board, no-strings-attached increase to the Canada Health Transfer, the federal Liberals say they plan to seek bilateral deals with the provinces that could tailor funding increases to each region’s unique needs.
Trudeau said Wednesday he has invited the premiers to a “working meeting” Feb. 7 in Ottawa to share the federal government’s plans to support the health-care systems across Canada and to hear their priorities for investment.
The prime minister made it clear the group “won’t be signing any deals” during this meeting, but rather starting direct talks on “bilateral arrangements that will happen with every province” as well as coming up with a framework for a health data sharing plan.
“Let’s be clear, providing money is certainly part of the solution, and we will do that, but funding alone won’t solve the issues that we’re seeing,” Trudeau told reporters, speaking from Hamilton, Ont.
“What we’ll be doing… is rolling up our sleeves and talking about what we’re proposing as the shape of the path forward for health care in this country that will respond to some of the immediate pressures around health human resources and others.”
Despite their differing political persuasions, Canada’s 13 premiers have been united in their calls for an increase to the annual Canada Health Transfer to the provinces and territories. They want what would amount to a $28-billion increase to the $45.2 billion Canada Health Transfer, which they say will bring the federal contribution toward health costs to 35 per cent from 22 per cent currently.
With health care now taking up more than a third of their budgets, the premiers say Ottawa must contribute more to these increasing costs – even while many of these provinces have been posting budget surpluses in recent months.
Both Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos made highlighted this during the Liberal cabinet retreat this week.
“The fiscal position of many Canadian provinces is very strong today and I think Canadians quite naturally and appropriately expect provinces to use that fiscal capacity to support the health care systems that all of us depend on,” Freeland told reporters Tuesday.
Nonetheless, Trudeau has said he’s willing to make new long-term, multi-year health funding commitments to the provinces, but only if they agree to a set of shared priorities that would see “tangible results,” to improve patient care for Canadians.
These priorities include: reducing backlogs and supporting health workers, enhancing access to family doctors, improving mental health services, helping Canadians age with dignity and agreements to modernize and share health data.
In some areas of the country, gaps in some of these areas may be more acute while others have seen successes that don’t require a one-size-fits-all approach, Trudeau said.
That’s why, in addition to working out an agreement to raise the Canada Health Transfer, individual bilateral deals with provinces and territories on those key priorities will also be discussed, as well as a national plan for health data sharing, Duclos said Wednesday.
Until recently, the premiers were firm in stating they wanted more money from Ottawa with no strings attached and no intentions of breaking ranks with bilateral deals.
But last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who represent Canada’s two most populous provinces, said they would be willing to accept conditions, including more sharing of health data.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said he received a “enthusiastic” reception from Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey to the idea of flexible arrangements with provinces and territories based on their individual needs.
“Some might even call them asymmetrical agreements,” LeBlanc told reporters Wednesday.
“There will be some common elements, there may be some differences around geography, virtual care and other items. So we’re confident that that’s the best mechanism to address those unique needs.”
Ford reacted positively to news of the meeting on social media Wednesday, but made sure to include his expectation for a commitment to more federal funds.
“We have a lot to discuss, including making sure the federal government properly funds the health care people rely on,” Ford said in a tweet. “When Team Canada works together, there’s nothing we can’t do.”
Trudeau would not commit Wednesday to the 35 per cent funding model the premiers are seeking.
Instead, he pointed to significant pressures that have been facing Canada’s health-care system in every province and territory, including critical staffing shortages and over five million Canadians who do not have access to a family doctor, according to Statistics Canada data.
These factors, coupled with shortages of long-term and home care for elders who are now taking up greater proportions of acute care hospital beds, has led to cascading emergency room closures across the country for months.
Surges in patients during the fall due to outbreaks of respiratory illness added further strain to hospitals and health clinics, leading to wait times so long, several Canadians died after waiting hours in emergency departments without seeing a doctor.
“Wait times in emergency rooms across the country, particularly in rural areas, have become dangerously long,” Trudeau said Wednesday.
“Health-care workers themselves are under incredible strain as they’ve stepped up over these past two years. So many of them are on the verge of burnout. So many of them continue to work incredibly long hours to keep everyone safe but need extra support.”
That’s why he says he wants to work with the premiers to talk not only of dollars and cents, but to ensure transparency with where the money is being invested, to ensure it improves the dire conditions facing health workers and patients across the country.
On Tuesday, Freeland pointed out that her Liberal party made a number of health funding commitments during the 2021 election campaign, saying the federal government will “be faithful” to those election promises. They included $4 billion to help eliminate wait-lists, $3 billion over four years to help hire 7,500 family doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners, and $400 million over four years to expand virtual health services.
To date, only $2 billion of this campaign commitment has materialized, earmarked for reducing waitlists for surgeries and diagnostics.
“We will be faithful to those commitments, it’s a promise we made to Canadians,” Freeland said Tuesday.
“I think it’s entirely appropriate for the federal government to play its role in ensuring that our health-care system is strong, is stable and has the capacity to deal with some of the new challenges of the 21st Century.”