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Inmates of the Toronto Jail on Feb. 24, 2011. (Peter Power/Peter Power/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Inmates of the Toronto Jail on Feb. 24, 2011. (Peter Power/Peter Power/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Triage on rural doctors, but no major surgery for ailing health system Add to ...

Canadians say they want governments to invest in health care but Tuesday’s budget offers only small cash injections to a system under stress.

New doctors and nurses who are prepared to practice in underserved rural areas will see a large portion of their student debt forgiven by the federal government starting in the next fiscal year.

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The initiative is worth up to $40,000 for each practicing family physician, and $20,000 for each nurse or nurse practitioner, who owes Canada Student Loans and is willing to relocate to a remote community.

This will cost the government $9-million annually and could entice about 110 doctors and twice that many nurses to move away from the comforts of city life.

Researchers at Laval University in Quebec have found financial incentives are an effective way to get health professionals to establish themselves in rural areas, but they do not necessarily stay there. Many succumb to the stress of the isolation and lack of medical support.

Ottawa is also offering new tax credits to people taking care of infirm family members. Starting in 2012, a man who is caring for a sick wife, or a woman caring for a disabled son, could see their taxes reduced by as much as $300 annually.

In addition, the government has lifted the $10,000 cap on a tax credit for extraordinary medical and disability-related expenses that applied to people looking after someone other than a spouse or child.

The measures attempt to meet a demand by the New Democrats that the Conservative government address Canada’s doctor shortage, but the budget is more about redistributing medical experts than adding to the health-care system’s human resources.

And it does not address the concerns of the medical community, which had been looking for some sign of what, if anything, will replace a federal-provincial health-care agreement that expires in 2014.

Later Tuesday, the three federal opposition parties announced they will all vote against Mr. Flaherty’s proposed budget, making it likely that a spring election will be called and that none of the budget’s provisions will be enacted.

Wait times for some key surgeries are improving, but doctors still say the system is taking in more patients than it can handle. They have been asking for money for things like home care and long-term care, which would move people out of the acute-care beds that are at a premium.

They have also insisted it is time to investigate a pharma-care program that was promised by the previous Liberal government in 2004.

But with a deficit that is still expected to hover around $30-billion next year, the Conservative government has decided this is not the time for major health investments.



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