Ottawa has inked health-care accords with five provinces just two weeks after presenting its $196.1 billion offer to premiers, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Thursday, paving the way for new investments and improvements to Canada’s ailing health system.
Ontario and the four Atlantic provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador have all signed memorandums of understanding to start negotiations on how Ottawa’s 10-year funding agreements will help improve outcomes for patients and working conditions for burned-out health care workers, Trudeau said.
He thanked the five premiers for agreeing to move forward and “stepping up and starting to really improve health care systems for their citizens at a time of crisis.”
“(They) said, ‘Yes, we’re in for these health care deals, let’s start negotiating the details on how many family doctors we’re going to have, what we’re going to be investing in mental health, how we’re going to move forward to get the best possible outcomes for Canadians,” Trudeau said during a visit to Halifax Thursday.
“I can also highlight that there’s many other jurisdictions, provinces across the country, that are interested in starting the important work of delivering better results for Canadians.”
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc have been on a whirlwind diplomacy tour since Trudeau invited all 13 of Canada’s premiers to Ottawa Feb. 7 where he presented a funding proposal that would infuse $46.2 billion in new money for health care over the next decade to the provinces and territories on top of pre-established health funding streams from Ottawa.
The ministers wrapped up their final meeting in Quebec on Thursday and said they expect other provincial and territorial deals to be finalized next week.
The money is being offered in response to repeated demands from the premiers over the last two-and-a-half years to increase Ottawa’s share of health costs from 22 per cent to 35 per cent.
While Ottawa’s offer is far less than the $28-billion annual increase to the Canada Health Transfer that provinces wanted, the premiers have indicated they will accept the Liberal government’s offer.
They did, however, ensure their disappointment over the final dollar figure was communicated.
Trudeau said Thursday Canadians keep hearing about these spats over billions in health-care investments, but ultimately they only care about whether the money leads to improved access to care.
“Canadian families from coast to coast to coast keep hearing people throwing around billions of dollars here, hundreds of millions of dollars there,” he said.
“That’s all money that doesn’t mean anything near as much as – are you going to have access to a family care physician? Are you going to get that mental health support that you need when you’re in crisis, when you need it? Are we going to see reductions in backlogs?”
Ongoing crisis in Canada's health system
Canada’s health system has been crumbling under the weight of a number of significant pressures, including a nationwide shortage of nurses and other health workers, a lack of family doctors for approximately 6.5 million Canadians, surgical and diagnostic backlogs and inadequate access to quality elder care.
These pressures have had a cascading effect on hospital emergency departments across Canada, as they have become the only place many Canadians can access basic health services.
But this has forced many ERs to temporarily close over the last year due to stretched capacity amid staffing shortages.
The result has seen patients left for hours in waiting rooms and being treated in hallways and even in waiting room chairs. Several patients in a few different provinces have died after waiting for hours in ERs without seeing a doctor.
- Health minister slams nicotine pouches, tobacco company alleges defamation
- Grab your tissues: Canada’s flu season has officially begun, officials say
- Air pollution in Sarnia-area linked to increased cancer risk: health review
- Police fear ‘they’ll be seen as weak’ bringing up mental health struggles: Ontario union
When asked about one of these cases in Nova Scotia Thursday, where the family of a woman who died after a seven-hour ER wait is now suing the provincial health authority, Trudeau called the situation “heartbreaking.”
“I think Canadians are rightly proud of having a universal health care system, but also very aware that that system is not living up to people’s expectations,” Trudeau said.
“Tragic stories like this should not be happening.”
That’s why Ottawa’s focus in its talks with provinces on health funding has been ensuring any new money provided will lead to tangible improvements in the health services available to patients, he added.
The new health accords include several elements, including $25 million earmarked for bilateral deals with each individual province and territory to be aimed at targeted measures responsive to the unique needs of each region.
Ottawa says its 10-year deal with Ontario includes $8.4 billion in new money plus $776 million in a one-time top up to address “urgent needs, especially in pediatric hospitals and emergency rooms, and long wait times for surgeries.”
Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones said an agreement in principle was reached after the two sides agreed to add reviews into the deal to ensure long-term sustainability.
“As Ontario continues to invest at record levels in our publicly funded system, this additional funding will bolster Ontario’s investments in health care as we implement our plan for connected and convenient care,” Jones wrote in a statement Thursday.
“We look forward to working with our federal counterparts to reach common ground on ensuring there is sustainable federal health-care funding for generations to come. Ontarians deserve no less.”
The Nova Scotia government says it will receive $1 billion as part of its 10-year deal with Ottawa, and plans to use it to increase access to primary and mental health care, support health-care workers and adopt new technologies for better and faster care.
“Nova Scotians deserve a health-care system that is there for them when they need it. We need more care, faster. That means more people working in the system, more ways to get care, and the technology to help our busy healthcare teams,” N.S. Health Minister Michelle Thompson said in a statement.
“We look forward to working with our federal partners toward these shared goals.”
These preliminary agreements with the five provinces will allow for further discussions on how the new money will be spent, Ottawa says.
Each province and territory will be able to identify their own targets and timelines that correspond to their individual needs, but they must also align with Ottawa’s priorities, which include mental health, primary care, increasing the number of health-care workers and addressing surgical backlogs, Trudeau said Thursday.
Provinces must also agree to upgrade their health data collection to better show how the system is performing as well as annual reporting of specific indicators.
The improvement in data will be the lever for citizens to measure whether their provincial and territorial governments this influx of federal cash is improving their access to care, Trudeau said.
“That’s the mechanism that we’re moving forward with to ensure that Canadians get the best possible outcomes and those who are responsible for delivering health care are held to account.”
–with files from Global’s Sean Boynton and The Canadian Press