In a gambit that commits his party to spending serious coin in a cash-strapped economy, Michael Ignatieff has pledged $1-billion a year for families caring for sick and elderly relatives at home if a Liberal government is elected.
It's the latest, and perhaps the boldest, Liberal attempt to distance the party's platform from that of Stephen Harper's Conservatives - prioritizing the concerns of households over those of business, a policy they hope will resonate with voters.
"They are listening, they are finally listening," said Barb MacLean, who has lobbied governments to give more benefits to family caregivers as executive director of the Family Caregivers' Network Society. "We've been calling for a national strategy for 20 years without much response."
Ms. MacLean has personal experience with care giving: In 2007, she had to take lengthy stretches off work to care for her mother as she succumbed to a seven-month battle with cancer. And millions could identify with her, according to a 2008 Statistics Canada study that found one-fifth of the population over 45 - nearly three million people - provided some form of unpaid care to seniors in the previous year.
The Liberal homecare plan has two components: a six-month insurance benefit to cover employee leave to care for a sick parent or spouse; and a tax break worth up to $1,350 a year for family caregivers "who provide essential care to a family member at home."
Mr. Harper scoffed that this marks the fifth time Liberals have "recycled" a promise first made in 1997 to bolster homecare. "Every time they have not delivered homecare but they did deliver tax hikes," the Prime Minister told the Commons.
The Liberal plan would replace a six-week care provision now provided under EI.
While the plan is expected to form an integral part of the party's election platform, it has yet to rouse much support among economists working in the health field.
In a ground-breaking study released in May, TD economists found that health care would take up 80 per cent of total government spending by 2030 unless expenses were reined in. None of their recommendations to address spiraling costs touched on homecare, but one of the authors concedes the Liberal policy could have economic merit if it encourages people to care for ailing relatives at home - a growing trend that already saves the health-care system $25-billion a year, according to a 2009 study.
"Any way that individuals can be incented to undertake less costly means of care can certainly help," said TD economist Derek Burleton. "Still, our research showed that provincial efforts to restructure how doctors and hospitals are funded and improving information flows in the system offered much more potential in lowering the long-term rate of health spending growth."
Other economists would prefer a more generous payout for the families affected, many of whom spend far more than six months tending to ailing relatives.
"I think this policy shift represents a small drop in the ocean for a very small, but important subset of caregivers," said Peter Coyte, professor of health economics at the University of Toronto. "It would be better spent if it were targeted to the caregivers within the sandwich generation that devote more significant time to caregiving."
Mr. Ignatieff shared the stress his own family endured while watching his father, George, decline due to Alzheimer's.
Ms. MacLean, meanwhle, spent a year recovering from the around-the-clock attention she paid to her mother. "People don't die on a six-month schedule, they usually wax and wane over a number of years," she said. "And their families will continue to suffer unless the system supports that.
With a report from Jane Taber in OttawaReport Typo/Error