The federal government will provide $2-billion in new federal health transfers to provinces and territories to help clear backlogs for surgery, medical procedures and diagnostics that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened.
The one-time top-up is proposed in Bill C-17, tabled by the government in the House of Commons on Friday. Speaking at the University of Ottawa, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the pandemic has delayed an estimated 700,000 operations and other medical procedures. He said the money will help address the backlogs, such as cancer and heart surgery, as well as hip replacements.
“The pandemic has brought to light problems that had already existed for many years and made things even more difficult,” Mr. Duclos said. “This is particularly true in the case of delays for surgeries, diagnostics and treatments of all kinds.”
The government announced the proposal days after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh unveiled a “supply-and-confidence” agreement. Under the deal, New Democrat MPs will vote to keep the Liberals in power until June, 2025, in exchange for parliamentary co-operation and progress on key NDP policies, including an income-based dental care program and national pharmacare.
The new money would be provided to provinces and territories on a per capita basis. Ontario would receive the largest sum, at $775.5-million, followed by Quebec at $450-million, British Columbia at $272.4-million and Alberta at $232.3-million.
In a statement on Friday, Mr. Singh said the party used its “power” to work with the Liberal government on the health transfer announcement.
“Without an immediate investment to address the needs of health care workers and the backlog of surgeries across the country, people haven’t been able to get the care that they need,” Mr. Singh said.
Mr. Duclos said five areas of priority for health care spending are medical procedure backlogs, family health service access, long-term care and home care, mental health and substance use, and health data and virtual care. He said these areas are important to everyone Ottawa has talked to, including the provinces and territories.
The federal government is facing calls from premiers to increase the Canada Health Transfer (CHT), worth $43.1-billion this year.
The transfer is a payment Ottawa provides to the provinces for health care and to support principles of the Canada Health Act.
Provincial leaders want the federal government to increase its contribution to health spending to 35 per cent from 22 per cent, which would amount to about $28-billion more this year.
NDP health critic Don Davies said stable and predictable health care funding is needed in the long term through an increase to the CHT. He said on Friday that he hopes Ottawa will sit down with the provinces and territories at the soonest opportunity to “hammer out this agreement for the good of Canadians.”
Conservative health critic Michael Barrett and Deputy Leader Luc Berthold said Friday’s announcement showed the Liberal government is willing to wait to address a crisis.
COVID-19 has taken an “immense toll” on provincial health care systems and front-line health workers, they added. “The provinces have long been calling on the federal government to provide predictable, stable health transfers,” they said in a statement. “Had the federal government worked with the provinces, these ad-hoc payments wouldn’t be necessary.”
One of the key parts of the Liberal-NDP deal, announced on Tuesday, is a dental care program for low-income Canadians, beginning this year for children under 12 years old. It would be expanded to people under 18, seniors and people with disabilities in 2023, and fully implemented in 2024 for families with incomes under $90,000.
It’s unclear how the dental program would be implemented. At a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Singh said it would be a stand-alone federal program, much like an employment insurance plan. However, opposition critics and the Canadian Dental Association say the government should allow the provinces, which are responsible for the administration of health care, to oversee the dental program.
Asked Friday which level of government would implement the program, Mr. Duclos did not say what the vision is.
Michel Breau, head of advocacy and governance for the Canadian Dental Association, told The Globe and Mail this week that his organization strongly recommends the federal government transfer funding to the provinces to improve their existing dental programs.
Earlier this week, Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen said the cost of dental care, pharmacare and other measures will lead to “more debt, more inflation, more jobs lost, more uncertainty and, frankly, more polarization.”
Bloc Québécois MPs have warned the deal encroaches on areas of provincial jurisdiction and will not be welcome in Quebec.
Several premiers, including Alberta’s Jason Kenney, Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Quebec’s François Legault, have harshly criticized the deal, while B.C. Premier John Horgan has expressed support. Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government has so far not commented.
Mr. Legault told reporters on Wednesday the agreement would infringe on provincial authority, particularly when it comes to health care spending. He said there is a “very strong common front” among the provinces that health care is within their jurisdiction, and predicted the federal Liberal-NDP deal will “run into a wall” on the matter.
The Liberal-NDP agreement also mentions other policy areas where the parties have common ground, including housing, child care, climate change, Indigenous reconciliation and taxation. It says the parties agreed to a guiding principle of “no surprises,” suggesting the government will inform the NDP of major upcoming developments.
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