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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and B.C. Premier David Eby arrive for a healthcare funding announcement at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, in Langley, B.C., on March 1. The British Columbia government has agreed in principle to a $27.47-billion deal for health-care funding from the federal government.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia will collect an additional $1.5-billion in health care funding from Ottawa this year, after signing a new bilateral deal that includes a joint commitment to fast-track immigration pathways for foreign-trained doctors and nurses.

One day after B.C. tabled a budget which includes the highest-ever levels of spending on health care, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined Premier David Eby at a nursing school in the Fraser Valley to announce an agreement in principle that promises to reduce waiting times, improve long-term care, and boost supports for mental health and addictions.

Ottawa says B.C. will receive a total of $27.5-billion in federal funding over 10 years, including $3.3-billion for the new bilateral agreement. That money will go to the agreed-upon priorities with a detailed breakdown to be worked out later. The total figure includes increases to the Canada Health Transfer.

B.C. is the ninth province to sign a bilateral health deal as part of Mr. Trudeau’s health care funding proposal that promises to increase transfers over 10 years. Quebec and the territories have yet to reach agreements.

B.C. Premier moves to carve out province’s share of bilateral health money

Mr. Trudeau said that new money comes with some strings attached, including accountability measures to ensure the funding improves outcomes, and a joint commitment to streamline foreign credential recognition for health professionals, and to improve labour mobility for key health professionals.

“We absolutely need their skills and their dedication, because across Canada, health care workers have been stretched to their limits,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters after meeting with internationally trained nursing students at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

In the budget tabled on Tuesday, B.C. forecasts a $3.2-billion increase in health care spending, to a total of $28.5-billion. While the province had already included some of the new federal funding in the budget, the bilateral agreement will add an extra $329-million to that total this year.

Despite the ever-increasing sums of money going to health care, access has deteriorated.

Health care systems across the country have not yet recovered from the pandemic strain and staffing shortages, particularly among nurses and physicians, are acute. In B.C. that has resulted in rural emergency room closings, ambulance delays, and growing waiting times for cancer treatment.

While the province has promised to create seats to train hundreds of additional nurses and doctors, it can’t graduate students fast enough. The faster solution involved breaking the logjam of people waiting to have their credentials approved. There are roughly 2,000 nurses waiting to be assessed by the B.C. College of Nurses and Midwives, and the province announced in January a plan to reduce waiting times for credentials from up to three years, down to three months.

Mr. Eby welcomed Wednesday’s agreement with Ottawa, saying it provides stable funding for the coming decade. But he noted that the province has already laid out a plan to clear away some of the hurdles facing foreign-trained health workers. “The piece that is really going to make a difference is getting people off the sidelines who could do work for us right now in our communities and in our hospitals,” Mr. Eby said.

Currently B.C. has a record-high number of vacancies for nurses, with more than 5,300 unfilled positions, alongside a long-standing shortage of family doctors.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said his government has added a net total of 38,000 health care workers since 2017, and the province is leading the country in adding more nurses. But it isn’t enough to meet significant growth in demand. “We need another 38,000 over the next five years,” he said in an interview. “This money helps with that.”

The money from Ottawa includes annual increases to the Canada Health Transfer, as well as the top-up promised by Mr. Trudeau last month. The top-up is supposed to support urgent needs, especially pediatric hospitals and emergency rooms, and long waiting times for surgery. There is also additional money from a previous bilateral agreement that will target home support, long-term care, and mental health and addictions programs over the next five years.

Last September, the province announced a health work force strategy to add more doctors, nurses and health sciences professionals. Over three years, the plan is meant to add 3,000 postsecondary training spots, provide thousands of additional bursaries and training grants, and create more than 1,700 health-care positions.

The province also has established a new compensation model designed to draw more physicians into family practice, and has set aside almost $400-million this year for that program. The model was introduced one month ago, and to date, 48 per cent of family doctors have signed on for the more lucrative pay package.

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