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'We need a significant, long-term increase in funding from the federal government to meet the challenges coming out of the pandemic,' B.C. Premier John Horgan said during a press conference on Friday.KEVIN LIGHT/Reuters

Canada’s premiers are warning that strains on health care created by the pandemic require a long-term funding fix from Ottawa, to ensure Canadians will be able to rely on equitable services in the years ahead.

The premiers were calling on Ottawa to increase its share of health care spending long before COVID-19 arrived. But as the pandemic enters its third year, the 13 provincial and territorial leaders say the cost-sharing arrangement with Ottawa is not sustainable.

“We need a significant, long-term increase in funding from the federal government to meet the challenges coming out of the pandemic, and ensuring that the services that people expect and deserve in Canada are uniform from coast to coast to coast,” said B.C. Premier John Horgan, who chaired a virtual meeting of the Council of the Federation on Friday.

“This is about providing services for people, it’s about wait times, it’s about human resources in our health care system. It’s about making sure that we can provide state-of-the-art diagnostics so that we can address diseases as they come forward like COVID-19, like cancers,” said Mr. Horgan, who is recovering from throat cancer. Friday was his first press conference since his radiation treatment finished.

The provinces and territories will receive $45.2-billion this year under the Canada Health Transfer, up 4.8 per cent from last year. The premiers say Ottawa must increase its share of every dollar they spend on health care to 35 cents from 22 cents, and the funding must be unconditional.

Last April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to approve long-term increases to provincial health transfers once the pandemic came to an end. In January, he repeated his commitment that Ottawa will invest more in the Canada Health Transfer in the future, but for now, his government will deal with pandemic supports that are “immediately required.”

The Canadian Health Coalition and the country’s largest health care unions, collectively representing 635,000 health care workers, agree with the provincial leaders that federal financial transfers to the provinces and territories should increase.

Unlike the premiers, however, those groups want funding increases to be tied to strong national standards for the health care services that the money funds.

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In a statement Friday, the unions said there is no doubt federal funding for health care has fallen behind, but provinces and territories should not be able to spend federal money without a commitment to ensure that the health care system is universal, comprehensive, accessible, portable and publicly administered.

The unions say all levels of government have failed to adequately invest in health care, resulting in a high rate of job vacancies. Those workers still on the job are exhausted, stressed out and traumatized, they said.

Mr. Horgan said the provinces reject any strings attached to health care funding, saying they are the ones who are responsible for delivering health care, and needs vary across the country.

He issued a call to Mr. Trudeau to meet with the premiers on health care funding.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe told a news conference that Ottawa’s decision will shape the future of health care. “We’re really at a fork in the road, as we find our way out of COVID,” he said.

If federal transfers increase, Mr. Moe said it will provide Canadians with better access to mental health and addiction supports, as well as reducing surgical wait times and funding additional health care workers.

“The other path is reduced responsiveness to providing health care that Canadians expect in their community, and higher provincial deficits, I would say unsustainable provincial deficits, into the future.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney told reporters he also wants Ottawa to water down international border controls that have been in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“We have tens of millions of people between Canada and the United States with current Omicron infections. And so the notion that we can interrupt or reduce community transmission through very rigid travel protocols, I think, is unrealistic,” he said.

Alberta wants an end to the 72-hour, pre-departure testing and isolation requirements, Mr. Kenney said. “We don’t think these measures are effective in the current context.”

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