Good morning! Wendy Cox in Vancouver this morning.
I was a reporter in Ottawa in 1995 when the federal government rolled transfer payments for health and other social programs into one. The Canada Health and Social Transfer – the CHST – helped then-finance minister Paul Martin tame the federal budget deficit, but it enraged the provinces. The provinces’ demand for restored funding and their assertion that Ottawa is not paying its fair share, while Ottawa rebukes that the provinces are not accounting for the dollars they get, hasn’t changed much. Each communique following a premiers’ meeting in which health care is the main topic looks roughly the same – change the dollar demands and the premiers’ names to fit the times.
But while health care has come and gone as an issue top-of-mind for voters over the years, it is undeniably at the fore right now. The pandemic has stretched health resources to the breaking point. Globe reporter Carly Weeks reported that on one day last month, estimates online showed the wait to see a doctor at Vancouver General Hospital’s emergency department was nearly nine hours. It was 4½ hours at Calgary’s Peter Lougheed Centre, and nearly eight hours at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg.
In May, the shortage of family doctors in British Columbia – there are about one million people in the province who do not have a family physician – prompted Premier John Horgan to acknowledge that the situation is “acute.” Efforts to woo more into those jobs are falling flat. Health columnist André Picard wrote this week about B.C.’s recently unveiled “new to practice” contract for doctors. The provincial government is offering newly qualified family physicians almost $300,000 in compensation, plus a $25,000 signing bonus and up to $150,000 in student-loan forgiveness over five years. In return, the newly minted doctor must join an established group practice, take on 800 to 1,250 new patients, commit to working 1,680 to 2,100 hours a year and assume a share of clinic overhead.
So far, there are no takers, André notes.
This week, the premiers met in Victoria and the demand for more health care funding was urgent.
Mr. Horgan, who is chair of the council said one-time injections of cash are insufficient to resolve these issues because they don’t allow for long-term planning.
“We need sustainable, predictable funding from Ottawa so we can build out our budgets, make commitments to health care professionals about how we’re going to meet their needs, and most importantly, offering service to patients that expect nothing less than our best,” he said.
The premiers wrapped their meeting Tuesday by accusing the federal government of not paying its fair share of health care costs and creating a national health care crisis.
Ottawa has countered that it would only increase its share of funding if jurisdictions maintained and increased their own, and that Canadians would need accountability in how that money is spent.
Several provinces that have previously faced the scrutiny of their auditors-general on the issue of financial accountability have come under fire for the issue. Last month, Alberta’s Auditor-General issued a scathing report saying that poor reporting practices meant it was unclear what billions of dollars meant for COVID-19 strategies and programs actually achieved. This included $1.3-billion in federal funding through the Safe Restart Agreement “to help protect public health and safety, prepare for potential future waves of the virus, and further support the safe reopening of economies across Canada.”
But Mr. Horgan shot back that the federal government is “creating a problem that doesn’t exist,” and that provinces and territories are accountable every day through their legislatures.
“I think it’s a cop-out and it’s a mechanism to divert attention, for the federal government to say, ‘Well we don’t want to continue to fund health care because you might do something else with the money,” Mr. Horgan said Tuesday.
“It all goes into a pot and it all comes out for the services Canadians need. That’s our jurisdiction.”
The meeting on Tuesday ended without any commitment from Ottawa for more funding and without any notion from the premiers about what solutions are in their hands as the problems persist.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.