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National health organizations say Canada’s premiers must commit this week to making substantial changes to the health care system in order to address emergency room closings, excessive waiting times and the lack of access to primary care.

The country’s 13 premiers are meeting in Winnipeg this week to discuss a wide-ranging agenda that includes infrastructure spending and green energy, as well as the state of the country’s health care system and how to ensure new federal health spending will help improve system access.

Earlier this year, provinces and territories reached an agreement with the federal government that will see Ottawa spend nearly $200-billion on extra health care funding over the next 10 years.

Under the new agreement, provinces and territories are supposed to commit to collecting and sharing information with the federal government to track the performance of the health care system and determine where improvements are needed most. The federal government has suggested several indicators to be tracked, including the percentage of Canadians who have access to primary care, the number of new physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners and waiting times for mental-health and substance-use services.

Alika Lafontaine, president of the Canadian Medical Association, is in Winnipeg for the meetings and said he will be urging premiers to do what’s needed to save health care from the current crisis.

“I think the most important message to get through to premiers across Canada is this time is not the same as what’s happened in the past,” Dr. Lafontaine said. “We need them to literally sit down with front-line providers and figure out what they’re going to prioritize in the stabilizing, rebuilding of the system.”

The premiers need to get serious about health care reform, not just funding

The CMA is advocating for provinces and territories to commit to a series of tangible targets to improve system access, such as eliminating hospital emergency department closings within three years, increasing the number of net new family physicians to 7,500 over five years and 15,000 in the next 10 years, and increasing the percentage of Canadians with access to primary care to 90 per cent within five years and 95 per cent in 10 years.

Dr. Lafontaine said it’s critical for governments to use new targets and indicators to measure health system performance and improve the current system.

The health care system in Canada has been facing problems for many years, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the system to the brink and fully exposed its many vulnerabilities. One of the biggest challenges is a lack of staff to help ensure patients have timely access to quality health care.

Sylvain Brousseau, president of the Canadian Nurses Association, said he will be pressing premiers on the importance of creating retention strategies to prevent veteran nurses with years of valuable experience from leaving their positions. That’s been occurring far too often in recent years because of the increasing workload being placed on nurses, Mr. Brousseau said.

“It’s not sustainable,” Mr. Brousseau said. “I just hope that we will have a concrete action plan and they will all collaborate and work in partnership.”

Paul-Émile Cloutier, president and CEO of HealthCareCAN, which represents hospitals and health care organizations, said provinces and territories should present a detailed action plan on how they plan to spend the new money coming from Ottawa.

While all of the provinces and territories except Quebec have signed bilateral agreements with the federal government outlining the broad strokes on where the funds will go, a comprehensive plan is needed to ensure the money is going where it’s needed most, he said.

“They need some kind of accountability going forward,” Mr. Cloutier said.

The Council of the Federation meeting concludes on Wednesday.

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