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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, 2022.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Canada’s premiers will meet among themselves next month in Ottawa with new hope that a health agreement can be reached with the federal government before another budget year of funding is locked in, amid growing expectation the Prime Minister will join the gathering.

Since a meeting of Canada’s health ministers ended in acrimony in November, Ottawa has signalled it is willing to negotiate a 10-year health funding deal that will see a hefty increase for both Canada Health Transfer, or CHT, and bilateral financial agreements with individual provinces and territories.

In exchange for billions in new money that provinces and territories have been requesting, they will have to agree to national accountability measures and reforms to improve their health care systems. Quebec and Ontario initially objected to Ottawa’s key demands, but last week agreed to accept the conditions, including the creation of a national health data system.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, who hosted the November meeting in Vancouver, said a breakthrough is needed before Ottawa tables its next budget, which is expected by early April.

“They’re getting serious. That’s great news,” he said in an interview. “The federal government is now talking about precise and specific proposals to fund health care in Canada. Their share has been declining and was set to decline again quite dramatically, if they had waited through this budget round.”

The meeting of premiers, hosted by Manitoba’s Heather Stefanson, has been scheduled for Feb. 12 and 13 in Ottawa – a location chosen to set the table for a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that could finalize a new health accord.

Federal ministers are gathering in Hamilton, Ont. this week for a three-day planning session in which the health care deal is a key agenda item. Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc told reporters Tuesday that “we’re looking forward to meeting with the premiers,” adding it would happen “soon.” Cabinet members have expressed ever more optimism about the prospects for reaching a health care deal.

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B.C. Premier David Eby, who will meet one-on-one with the Prime Minister on Wednesday, plans to discuss his province’s proposal for a bilateral deal, but he will also repeat the call for a First Minister’s meeting on health funding.

“The federal government must be a better partner in the delivery of our public health care system,” he said in a statement.

The bilateral deals will allow each province to address regional issues. B.C. wants additional help with the cost of home and community care, as well as mental health and addictions initiatives.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey says his top priority is a bilateral deal that increases access to primary care. He said investing jointly in primary care and long-term care with the federal government would take the pressure off emergency departments.

“We recognize that that is not as simple as building more beds in the emergency department – it really is a patient flow issue, in addition to a human resources issue, which every province and every country is facing,” he said in an interview.

Canadians are facing overcrowded hospitals, long waiting times in emergency rooms, backlogs in medical procedures and shortages of doctors and nurses in the wake of the pandemic and long-term systemic issues.

In Hamilton on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland offered a strong defence of more health care spending, saying it’s what Canadians expect.

“I hear from people every day about the importance of maintaining something which I think all Canadians are anxious about and all Canadians are really proud of, and that is our universal health care system,” she said.

The premiers have been pushing for the CHT to cover 35 per cent of the cost of health care, compared with the current 22 per cent.

Alika Lafontaine, president of the Canadian Medical Association, attributes the change in tone among federal, provincial and territorial leaders to the urgent need to address the crisis in the nation’s health care system.

“Patients are coming to harm because we are not coming together to solve the problems in health care,” he said. “I think there’s a recognition that it’s really important to move beyond the data sets of simply counting how much and counting how many.”

A Globe and Mail examination of the crisis in primary care found a paucity of public data beyond head counts of licensed doctors, which revealed nothing about how many hours those physicians actually devoted to family medicine or how many were working instead in hospitals, walk-in clinics and nursing homes.

The federal government launched an initiative in September, 2020 to develop a pan-Canadian health data system with particular emphasis on tracking workers, including defining the tasks performed by family doctors.

But when federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos asked his provincial counterparts to approve the data system at a meeting in the fall, without providing a specific cash offer, the meeting ended at an impasse.

This time around, Dr. Lafontaine said he is “cautiously optimistic” that an agreement can be reached. “We all had hoped for a breakthrough in November, but we were disappointed.”

-With reports from Lindsay Jones

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