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Doctors' group urging federal parties to support measures for seniors care

The Canadian Medical Association has come up with a package of three measures — immediate fixes with a manageable cost — which is part of a broader campaign for a national strategy on seniors care.

Barabas Attila

Canadian doctors, eager to put health care on the election agenda, are challenging federal leaders to back a $3.3-billion package of measures they say would have an immediate impact on caring for the nation's aging population.

A top-up of federal health funding to provinces based on demographics, catastrophic coverage for prescription drugs and changes to caregiving tax credits could all be put in place by the next budget, says a new report commissioned by the Canadian Medical Association.

The package of three measures, costed out by the Conference Board of Canada in a study commissioned by the CMA and to be released Monday, is part of a broader campaign by physicians for a national strategy on seniors care.

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Cindy Forbes, who recently became CMA president, said the study is designed to "entice" federal parties to put one or more of the policies into their platforms. By putting a price tag on some quick wins that any future government could make on a complex file, the group is hoping to spark debate on a topic that for the most part has been noticeable for its absence during the campaign.

"The system we have now was really built 50 years ago for acute care. We didn't build it to look after a large population of aging patients with complex diseases." said Dr. Forbes, a Nova Scotia family doctor. "As physicians we see we have to do something about it now."

Getting politicians to focus on long-term structural changes that will take years to implement is tough, Dr. Forbes said, so instead the study offers some short-term remedies with a manageable cost.

"We are really looking at the federal government taking a leadership role," Dr. Forbes said. Changes are needed to support seniors and their caregivers in the community and to make sure all Canadians have the same access to services such as palliative care, she said.

So far during this campaign, parties have unveiled some heath-care measures, but they have been overshadowed by talk of the economy and jobs. The New Democratic Party last week promised to invest in home care, help provinces build 5,000 more nursing-home beds and improve palliative care. It also has pledged to work with the provinces to lower drug prices.

The Green Party has a national pharmacare plan in its platform and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau committed to working with the provinces on health care in a letter sent to premiers earlier this month.

The Conference Board study estimates it would cost the federal government $1.6-billion next year to compensate provinces for the additional health-care costs of an aging population through a top up of the Canada health transfer. That cost would rise to $1.9-billion by 2020, it estimates. Provinces would benefit from the extra funding based on demographics, with Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia expected to experience the greatest share of the country's aging-related health-care costs.

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The study also looks at the cost of covering out-of-pocket expenses for prescription drugs for households spending more than $1,500 a year or 3 per cent of their income. It estimates such a plan would cost the federal government about $1.6-billion in the first year, rising to $1.8-billion by 2020.

The final recommendation is to change two non-refundable tax credits – the Canada Caregiver and Canada Family Caregiver tax credits – into refundable credits. This would mean that Canadians who qualify could be able to use the credits to receive funds, rather than just apply them to reduce their income. The study estimates the change would cost $91-million in the first year.

The CMA is planning a series of initiatives to encourage the public to join in their call for a national strategy on seniors care, including events in New Brunswick, Alberta and British Columbia in the coming weeks.

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