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A report believes that programs focusing on poverty, food security and housing could help make Canadians healthier.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Poverty is the No. 1 factor in determining whether Canadians live long, healthy lives, says a report from the Canadian Medical Association.

And another report released Tuesday, this one from the Fraser Institute, gives Canadians a stark reminder of just how costly the current health-care system can be.

The CMA report, Health Care in Canada: What makes us sick, was compiled as a result of town hall meetings the CMA held across the country, asking Canadians what issues they think affect their health.

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The report makes a dozen recommendations on what actions governments and individuals can take to live healthier lives. First among them – eliminate poverty.

"Poverty kills," said CMA president Dr. Anna Reid.

"Many factors outside the health-care system affect a person's health, from inadequate housing to a lack of healthy food to suboptimal early childhood experiences," Reid said when releasing the report Tuesday. "[But] what Canadians told us is that poverty is the recurring theme that underpins most of these social determinants of health."

Among a half-dozen town hall meetings held in cities across the country, the one in Winnipeg focused largely on aboriginal health. People living in aboriginal communities tend to face more health issues on average than the rest of the population.

"As one of the panellists said, we talk about success in life in terms of working hard and going up the ladder," said Reid. "With aboriginal children, many won't even reach the bottom rung."

Aboriginal health was also a key issue discussed late last week among premiers at their meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Other CMA-sponsored town hall meetings, attended by more than 1,000 people between February and June, were held in Charlottetown, St. John's, Calgary, Montreal and Hamilton.

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Among the report's other recommendations is a call for Ottawa to launch a pilot project to reduce poverty through a guaranteed annual income. It also calls for more affordable housing, an expansion of the "Housing First" approach to chronic mental-health issues that was developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and the introduction of a national food security program. And while governments can play a big role in ensuring programs are funded, physicians and individual Canadians must also work toward creating healthier lifestyles, the report said.

"Governments need to be pressured to take action," it said. "But there is a clear role for citizens, physicians and communities to help deal with the problems."

The CMA also recommends that governments work with the life and health insurance industry to create a comprehensive prescription drug program. The recommendations – and the costs associated with them – may be a hard pill for many Canadians to swallow. The current health-care system costs the typical four-person Canadian family more than $11,000 in taxes, says a Fraser Institute report.

"Health-care is not free in Canada," says the think tank.

"The fact is, Canadian families pay thousands of dollars in taxes every year to cover the cost of public health-care insurance," said Nadeem Esmail, the institute's director of health policy studies. "And that cost rose 1.5 times faster than average income over the past decade."

The report based its findings on data from Statistics Canada and the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

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