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Paramedics transfer patients to the emergency room triage but have no choice but to leave them in the hallway due to an at capacity emergency room at the Humber River Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Jan. 25.The Canadian Press

The Canadian Medical Association has asked Ottawa to take on a greater role in health care in order to address problems threatening the system.

CMA president Katharine Smart met with federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos last week to persuade the government to assume more responsibility in a medical system that delegates the delivery of services to the provinces. While the CMA regularly meets with government officials, the urgent tone Dr. Smart brought to the meeting is a marked departure for the organization, reflecting the dire state of health care in Canada.

“These problems that we’re seeing in the health care system are not unique – they’re shared problems. But there needs to be some leadership and direction,” Dr. Smart said in an interview Monday.

Overcrowded hospitals and lengthy waiting lists have long been features of the country’s health care system, but they have been aggravated by the pandemic. The CMA is just one of numerous health advocacy organizations demanding greater involvement from federal officials and other authorities to deal with the growing crisis.

Each province and territory has its own health care system. The federal government provides funding for those systems but rarely stipulates how that money should be spent, even though it does have the ability to make requests or incentivize spending on certain programs or areas.

Dr. Smart said the gravity of the situation means Ottawa can no longer rely on this old model. It has to take bold new action to address problems such as the worsening shortage of health care workers.

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For instance, she is asking the government to develop a national licensing system that would allow physicians to work anywhere in the country, replacing the outdated model that requires doctors to go through a complex and costly process to work in other provinces or regions. It makes sense and shouldn’t be that hard to implement, Dr. Smart said.

“That to me is the low-hanging fruit,” she said. “It’s not billions of dollars.”

The CMA also wants Ottawa to create a national health workforce strategy in order to map out areas in need and help bridge skills and labour gaps. This is an urgent matter, considering how many health care professionals are leaving the work force due to burnout, Dr. Smart said.

“This level of exodus of people is not typical for the health care system at all,” she said. “It’s happening at a time where we’re really struggling.”

Health care organizations have been lobbying Ottawa for such a strategy since the last election, arguing that it’s almost impossible to make sound long-term plans without a clear assessment of the current work force.

“Who else is going to co-ordinate a pan-Canadian health care strategy?” Dr. Smart said.

Mr. Duclos’s office said the minister and the CMA have agreed to continue working together to address issues such as workforce shortages and other key problems.

The minister “is committed to protecting and strengthening Canada’s publicly funded health care system,” a spokesperson said in an e-mail.

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