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New Health Minister says public health care must innovate to be sustainable

In her inaugural speech as health minister, Rona Ambrose speaks to the media at the Canadian Medical Association’s annual general meeting held in Calgary, Alberta on Monday, August 18, 2013.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

In a striking about-face from her predecessor's hands-off approach to medicare, the new federal Health Minister, Rona Ambrose, is promising an era of leadership and co-operation to ensure that the publicly funded health system is sustainable and affordable.

"I am and always have been a strong supporter of Canada's publicly funded health-care system," Ms. Ambrose told delegates to the Canadian Medical Association annual conference in Calgary on Monday.

"No system is perfect, of course, but I believe we have the fundamentals right and we can work to improve it together," she said.

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Ms. Ambrose said the way to improve the system is to make it more efficient and cost-effective by investing in innovation and research. "Innovation is very important when it comes to the long-term sustainability of our health-care system," she said.

The speech, her first as Health Minister, was warmly received to the point where CMA president Anna Reid hailed Ms. Ambrose's "new and engaging vision" and praised the federal government's new-found interest in medicare.

"There is a signal of openness that is very refreshing," Dr. Reid said, adding that she likes the minister's emphasis on innovation. "We know what needs to be fixed, where the innovation needs to happen," she said, "but how we make that happen on the ground is where we struggle."

Monika Dutt, chair of Canadian Doctors for Medicare, said she also welcomed Ottawa's change of course, but she added that the minister has a lot of work to do to "reverse the federal government's neglect of health care."

She also expressed concern that Ms. Ambrose remained mum on the 2014 health accord. Ottawa has offered to increase transfer payments to the provinces by 6 per cent annually until 2017 and then 3 per cent subsequently, but otherwise has refused to negotiate.

Ms. Ambrose, for her part, said federal funding has reached unprecedented levels – $30.3-billion this year and growing. "Now that the funding is there, we need to have a conversation on what can be done to make the system more sustainable," she said.

She said promoting health innovation is "worthy of federal leadership and an area where I believe we can make gains together, adding that the "consequences of not acting are staggering."

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The minister said she has already reached out to many of her counterparts, but discussions will begin in earnest at the federal-provincial-territorial meeting of health ministers in October. She will also "reach out" to the working group on innovation that was created by the Council of the Federation.

Ms. Ambrose also made it clear that she plans to leave her personal imprimatur on the health file, in particular by tackling the issue of family violence, a long-standing interest. "Family violence is a health issue," she said, noting that treating the physical and psychological wounds of spousal violence alone cost the health system $6-billion annually.

She said another priority will be work with her provincial and territorial counterparts to improve health care for seniors, which is one of the principal themes of the CMA meeting.

However, Ms. Ambrose said Ottawa will not introduce legislation to allow physician-assisted death. "Our position is clear on assisted suicide: Parliament decided to not reopen that debate."

The minister also underscored that she is a believer in preventive health and that she practises what she preaches by remaining active. In the days before the CMA meeting, she completed a 70-kilometre hike in the Rockies.

While health advocacy groups complained that it was difficult to get the ear of the previous health minister, Leona Aglukkaq, Ms. Ambrose promised to have an "open mind and an open door." To underscore the point, she spent the entire day at the CMA conference, listening to the debates and meeting with representatives of more than a dozen health groups.

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The Canadian Medical Association represents Canada's 78,000 physicians, residents and medical students.

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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