Health-care talks aren't just about money, Saskatchewan Premier says

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

A technician monitors MRI scans at a Toronto hospital in November of 2011. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says provinces are focusing too much on money and not enough on innovation and results when it comes to dealing with health care.

Money is only one part of the solution, he says. And although Saskatchewan is supportive of the federal government’s commitment to 6-per-cent annual increases in health-care funding until 2015-16, it is “not there yet” in terms of demanding another 10-year deal.

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Other provinces, including Ontario, want the Harper government to commit to another long-term deal like the one reached in 2004 under Liberal prime minister Paul Martin. But the National Post is reporting that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will cap health transfers and tie any increases to economic growth.

With the issue coming to a head, Mr. Wall told The Globe he doesn’t want to make upcoming negotiations all about money, percentages and escalator clauses. Rather, the Premier believes Canadians want the provinces to have a “discussion around results and better health care.”

The Council of the Federation meets in Victoria in mid-January and the expiry of the health-care accord is on the agenda. Mr. Wall is planning to bring this message to the table when he speaks with his provincial colleagues.

Last week, the Atlantic premiers met in Newfoundland and Labrador and demanded the federal government increase health transfers. They would like to see the Conservative government pay 25 per cent of their health costs, up from the 20 per cent Ottawa pays now.

The Saskatchewan Premier, meanwhile, says his province is successfully using private clinics to help reduce wait times for certain surgeries. They operate under the Canada Health Act but allow patients to have certain day surgeries outside of a hospital.

(Ian Hanna, a senior Wall official, noted that Saskatchewan inherited “the longest waiting lists in Canada from the previous government.” This is why the Premier “introduced private clinics” as a way of temporarily getting over the “waiting list bulge.” Most of the surgeries are orthopedic, including hips and knees, he added.)

The Premier says there is no “queue-jumping” in Saskatchewan’s program. Given the choice between timely surgery and having to wait, Mr. Wall said, people will choose surgery over ideology.

The issue of private medicine is a touchy one with so many politicians afraid that even whispering the word will lead to their defeat. But lately there has been a call from opinion leaders, including former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge, for an “adult, public conversation” on health-care funding.

Mr. Dodge believes there should be some kind of “ co-payment,” requiring Canadians to pay for part of their care. Mr. Wall, meanwhile, says the conversation about changing health care has already begun in his province – and he believes the public is ahead of politicians on this front.

The Premier said his new plan is working. So far, according to Saskatchewan government statistics, there are about 19 per cent fewer patients waiting for surgery in the province than there were a year ago.

The province’s numbers show that a total of 99 per cent of surgeries are completed within 18 months, 96 per cent within 12 months and 87 per cent are completed in six months. The goal is that by 2014 no one will wait longer than three months for surgery.

A study by the Fraser Institute, however, shows that wait times for surgery and other treatments increased in Saskatchewan to 29 weeks from 26.5 weeks last year. It has one of the higher wait times. And the province also recorded the longest wait time between seeing a specialist and receiving treatment – 19 weeks.