Just days before a pandemic-era federal Throne Speech, Canada’s premiers are asking for billions of dollars more in health care funding, and a major revamp of Ottawa’s fiscal stabilization program to aid provinces hard hit by global shutdowns.
The premiers of Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec met in Ottawa Friday, saying they are representing all provinces and territories – even those premiers not physically in attendance. They’re looking for new health care spending to be prioritized in Wednesday’s Throne Speech.
“We have seen health care costs escalate overwhelmingly throughout this pandemic,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said.
The premiers asked for an immediate, no-strings attached increase to the Canada Health Transfer to bring the federal share of health care funding to 35 per cent. The premiers say this represents an increase of $28-billion, going to $70-billion a year from the current $42-billion.
Health care is a provincial responsibility. However, the premiers argued that the area has been underfunded for years, exacerbated by the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“All provinces feel the same way: Give us the money, and we’ll deliver health care [in] the most effective, most efficient way,” Mr. Ford said. “We all have our different needs.”
The premiers also said they’re looking for a significant expansion of the fiscal-stabilization fund, a federal program that compensates provinces for revenue declines because of economic downturns. It’s a battle Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has been waging for his cash-strapped province since last year. In December, then-federal finance minister Bill Morneau – who has since left politics – said he was open to reviewing the program, which hadn’t been examined since 1995.
The provinces broadened their joint request on Friday to suggest a formula that would effectively give every province money under the federal program this year.
“We are joined by Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and other resource-producing provinces in facing a real crisis,” Mr. Kenney said Friday; he has added to his initial request for $2.4-billion in retroactive payments under the fund, to more than $6-billion, based on events in 2020.
The maximum payment under the program is based on a formula capped at $60 a provincial resident. And the fund only kicks in when there’s a decline in annual non-resource revenues greater than 5 per cent. For resource revenues, the threshold is an annual decline exceeding 50 per cent.
The premiers are reiterating a previous request that Ottawa eliminate the $60 per capita limit. But they increased their funding demand on Friday, requesting the threshold for revenue reduction from non-resource revenues go to 3 per cent, and that the threshold for resource revenues go to 40 per cent.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Ottawa will continue to be there for provinces and territories, saying that 87 cents for every dollar spent on COVID-19-related measures comes from the federal government. The federal Liberals pledged $19-billion to provinces for health care measures including increased testing and contact tracing, as well as $2-billion for education during the pandemic.
Mr. LeBlanc said that the premiers did not request a meeting with the federal government Friday to discuss their demands. However, he said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already expressed a willingness to speak with premiers this fall about increasing health care transfers.
“We also have a very real concern about the importance of working together immediately on the ongoing challenge of COVID-19,” Mr. LeBlanc said.
On the premiers' request to talk about fiscal redistribution, Mr. LeBlanc said the government is “always happy to talk to them about ensuring that it reflects the very real challenges of the shock to the economy.”
Testing concerns have been front and centre in the provinces, as recent increases in cases and the return to school have driven demand. Alberta announced this week changes to its asymptomatic testing program, limiting access to people at a higher risk of contracting or spreading the disease.
In Ontario, which reported 400 cases on Friday for the first time since early June, people reported waiting in lines for hours with their children and being turned away because of overcrowding. Mr. Ford has pledged to increase testing capacity in major cities with more mobile testing units and said pharmacies would soon be able to test asymptomatic people for the virus.
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