Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos says Ottawa and the provinces and territories have made “significant progress” on a multibillion-dollar health care funding deal and he’s optimistic an agreement can be unveiled at a first ministers meeting within weeks.
“We are confident we are going to get to a good place. I am personally very optimistic and I am looking forward to significant and positive developments in the weeks ahead,” he told a news conference Friday.
Mr. Duclos was responding to a report in The Globe and Mail that Ottawa and the provinces and territories are inching closer toward a 10-year funding deal that would provide a hefty increase in federal health transfers, along with bilateral financial agreements in areas such as long-term care. The Globe had reported that the deal is expected to be announced at the first ministers get-together in February, before the federal budget is tabled in March or April.
In recent negotiations, Mr. Duclos said there has been a “change in tone and direction” from the provinces and territories to accept Ottawa’s demands to modernize data sharing, reduce backlogs in surgeries and diagnostics, retrain and hire more nurses and use medical clinics to handle millions of Canadians without family doctors.
“Everyone agrees, including the premiers, that we need to focus on results for health workers and patients,” he said. “The Prime Minister is eager to meet the premiers and speak openly about the challenges of our health care system and how the provinces should be ready as short and long-term partners.”
Mr. Duclos declined to say if the federal government was prepared to accede to the premiers’ request to cover 35 per cent of the cost of health care, compared with the current 22 per cent. But he said Ottawa is ready to offer significant long-term funding to improve the troubled health care system.
Provincial and territorial governments have been grappling with overcrowded hospitals, long waiting times in emergency rooms, backlogs in medical procedures and shortages of doctors and nurses in the wake of the pandemic and long-term systemic issues.
The Globe reported that any deal would involve billions of dollars of new federal money in transfers and separate funding in bilateral agreements with provinces and territories.
For example, the federal and Ontario governments are deep in talks on a deal that would see Ottawa transfer $70-billion to the province over the next decade, according to two sources, one federal and one provincial. Some of this money would be earmarked under a bilateral agreement for home care and building long-term care facilities to reduce the stress on hospitals, they said. The Globe is not identifying the two sources who were not authorized to discuss the sensitive health care negotiations.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford would not confirm the $70-billion figure when asked on Friday, but insisted that any bilateral agreement would not come at the expense of other provinces and territories.
“I always consult with 12 other premiers on this and it’s not going to be a one-off for Ontario or a one-off for someone else,” he told reporters at an event in London, where he announced that his government will pay for the tuition of paramedics, as it plans to do for nurses.
The premiers had stood firm against any federal conditions in exchange for extra federal funding, but Mr. Ford broke from the pack last week. He announced that Ontario is willing to accept Ottawa’s key demands, including a national health data system.
On Wednesday, Quebec Premier François Legault said he also is ready to share data on the province’s health care systems, a move that Mr. Duclos said has persuaded other premiers to follow in step.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if all premiers admitted that openly in the near future,” Mr. Duclos said.
The Health Minister told reporters that a modern health care data-sharing system is paramount to saving lives. He noted that only 35 per cent of health care professionals have electronic access to patient data and only 35 per cent of patients have access to their medical records.
“If you don’t have access to electronic medical records, it is more difficult for your own health or the health of your loved ones,” he said. “If pharmacists, lab technicians, general practitioners, specialized physicians, if they can’t share data on a patient, it makes it very difficult for them to provide safe care.”
The Health Minister said he is confident that all the premiers will uphold equitable access to medicare in exchange for federal funding so that Canadians are not forced to use their “credit card” to get health care.
A possible outline of a funding deal will be discussed at a federal cabinet retreat taking place on Monday and Tuesday in Hamilton. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged that the country’s health care system is “strained, if not broken” and needs longer-term funding to deal with the shortcomings.