Canada’s premiers are delivering a united demand to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling for an “urgent” meeting with them to “hammer out a deal” on health-care funding before the spring federal budget.
The premiers held a joint press conference Friday, in which they reiterated their oft-repeated position that Ottawa is not paying its fair share of health care costs, noting that significant pressures facing the country’s health-care system are only intensifying funding needs.
“More than two years have passed since premiers publicly outlined our proposal for a new funding partnership, but unfortunately, despite assurances, we have received no meaningful response from the federal government,” said Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson, the current chair of the Council of the Federation, which represents Canada’s 13 premiers.
“There have been no federal proposals, no substantive meetings or dialogue and no real progress. We need an urgent first ministers meeting to discuss these critical issues.”
But Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland says Canadians are “frustrated and frightened” by pressures such as overcrowded emergency departments and family doctor shortages, stressing that federal and provincial governments need to find solutions, rather than focus on dollars.
“We understand that Canadians are really worried and frustrated and frightened, actually, in many parts of the country about the state of the health-care system, and we know that we need to work together to make it better,” Freeland told reporters during an event in Toronto Friday.
“Yes, that does mean some more investment, but it also means a focus on being sure we get the results that Canadians quite rightly expect of us from those investments alone.”
The premiers have been demanding a $28-billion increase to the Canada Health Transfer, which they say will bring the federal contribution toward health costs from 22 per cent currently to 35 per cent.
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has said Ottawa is willing to provide additional health-care dollars to provinces and territories, but first wants an agreement that would see them commit to expanding the use of common key health indicators and to building an improved health data system for the country.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault said Friday the premiers are united in their calls for more funding with no strings attached, as a one-size-fits-all approach would not work for provinces and territories with unique needs.
“We need the leeway in order to be able to do things in our own way with full autonomy,” he said in French.
“If the federal government were to impose a single vision everywhere, we would not be able to meet the needs of our own provinces and territories.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the top issue in every part of the country is health care, as hospital ERs struggle to deal with significant patient surges, thanks to a trifecta of infections of flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 currently circulating.
That’s why the premiers want a meeting as soon as possible in the New Year, to ensure any agreement on funding would be included in Ottawa’s spring 2023 budget.
“Nothing should be more important to the prime minister than meeting with the 13 premiers. That’s the bottom line,” Ford said.
“It’s not that hard to sit down and have a conversation and hammer out a deal. That’s what we’re asking for.”
The premiers have been dialing up the political heat on Trudeau to meet with them to discuss health-care funding, recently launching an advertising campaign tying the need for more federal funding to an exodus of doctors and nurses from the health system – just one of pressures facing overcrowded hospitals and emergency departments across the country.
Ottawa argues the premiers’ figures do not represent the full scope of the federal government’s total investment in health care, as tax points to provinces and other specific bilateral deals on mental health and home care are not being factored in.
However, Trudeau has said Ottawa will come forward with more funding, but it must be accompanied by “results.”
Throwing money into a “broken system” isn’t the answer, Trudeau told reporters last month, but rather provinces need to embrace changes to improve the health services available to Canadians.
“If provinces continue to not reform or not improve their health-care delivery services, it’s no surprise that Canadians are getting more and more frustrated,” he said during an event in New Brunswick Nov. 8.
Trudeau was also critical of provinces saying they need more funds while most have been delivering surplus budgets that have included “tax breaks to the wealthiest,” the prime minister said.
A meeting of provincial, territorial and federal health ministers in Vancouver in early November ended without an agreement reached, with the premiers issuing a joint statement saying they were “ disappointed with the lack of a federal response on the critical issue of sustainable health funding.”
However, Duclos says behind closed doors, the talks among the health ministers were actually constructive and they agreed on many things.
But this progress was not reflected in public comments because of a directive from the premiers, Duclos told Global News last week.
“We’ve been working really well. We worked also really well in private in Vancouver at the conference, we all agreed on the diagnostics and the solutions to the problem that we’ve been seeing,” he said.
“The premiers then asked my health ministers colleagues not to speak about those great conversations openly, not to say publicly the things we would want to do together and speak only of dollars.”
Ottawa is not interested only in dollars, Duclos said.
“We want outcomes for workers and patients.”
Federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc echoed these sentiments Friday, saying talks between Ottawa and the provinces have not stalled when it comes to finding solutions to the “crisis” facing the health system.
He noted he has spoken recently with the premiers of both Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, and that these discussions have been “encouraging.”
“As we look to increase federal investments, we want to ensure that we obtain the results together collectively as governments that Canadians expect of their health-care system,” LeBlanc said alongside Freeland in Toronto Friday.
“I think we’re in a place where we can continue to do the important work Canadians expect of us, and I’m not pessimistic at all about the results of our collective efforts.”