Ottawa rejected renewed calls for a massive injection of cash with no strings attached as the premiers try to shift the blame for health care systems that are buckling under a perfect storm of staffing shortfalls, a pandemic-induced surgery backlog and an autumn spike in viruses.
Canada’s premiers gathered in a virtual news conference on Friday to demand a January meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discuss their request for an increase in the federal share of health care costs to 35 per cent, from 22 per cent. His government has said it will increase transfers but it hasn’t disclosed by how much.
The goal, said Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson, is to talk about “fair and sustainable funding for the future of health care in our country.”
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to say whether he would meet with premiers but his Health Minister, Jean-Yves Duclos, told reporters on Friday that a funding increase without any conditions is not an option.
“A plan to send unconditional transfers to finance ministers is not a health plan,” Mr. Duclos told reporters in Ottawa. “If dollars were enough, we would have solved this problem, this crisis that we’re seeing, a long time ago.”
Rather than quarrelling over the narrow issue of funding, health experts working on the front lines say the country’s political leaders need to come together to address the much more complex issues that are pushing health care systems to the brink and allowing more patients to fall through the cracks.
Canadian Medical Association president Alika Lafontaine told The Globe and Mail on Friday that talking about cash transfers wont lead to the “immediate stabilization that we need.”
While funding is an important aspect of health delivery, Dr. Lafontaine said governments also need to address health-worker shortages, long emergency-room waiting times, cancelled pediatric surgeries and lack of space for new patients.
He also urged provincial and territorial leaders to rethink the message that they can’t fix the system until they get more money because it’s not true and risks leaving patients and health workers feeling hopeless. There are plenty of things that provinces and territories could be, and in some cases are, doing to fix the problem, he said.
Last month, the provinces rejected Ottawa’s offer for an unspecified amount of new cash, in part because the federal government tied it to a data-collection requirement.
During that November meeting, the provincial and territorial health ministers, who were meeting with Mr. Duclos, were asked to accept pan-Canadian plans for health human resources and a health data strategy.
On Friday Mr. Duclos argued that Ottawa is contributing significantly. Even before any new money is negotiated, the provinces and territories are already on track to get a 9.1-per-cent boost to the Canada Health Transfer next year – a $4.1-billion increase.
He said the government did not release the dollar amount that it is willing to give because the different governments first need to agree on what the expectations for their health care systems are before assessing what it will cost to get there.
Ms. Stefanson said that so far, the federal government’s offers have lacked substance. “Despite assurances, we have received no meaningful response,” she said.
While she and Quebec Premier François Legault were categoric in their rejection of any conditions on new federal funding, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs left the door open. He said it was “paramount” for the premiers and Prime Minister to gather but wouldn’t predetermine the outcome of those talks, saying, “let’s see where that takes us.”
Yukon Premier Sandy Silver was absent from the press conference but his spokesperson said he agreed with his colleagues. Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey also missed the event. His office did not respond to a request for comment from The Globe.
Across the country, pediatric hospitals are at the centre of the current crisis. The enormous strain is leading to cancelled surgeries, lengthy emergency-room waiting times and a lack of capacity to admit new sick children. The problem has become so serious that the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), in Ottawa, called in the Red Cross this week to assist as it struggles to handle the high volume of patients.
Emily Gruenwoldt, president and CEO of advocacy organization Children’s Healthcare Canada, said federal funding is only part of the solution. And she noted that for years, provinces have cut spending for pediatric facilities, a short-sighted move that helped create the current situation.
According to CHEO president Alex Munter, the hospital had 300 beds when it opened in 1974. Today, it has less than half that.
Many of the budget cuts were made as medical advancements improved treatment options and shortened recovery time. But Ms. Gruenwoldt said those same advancements created new needs. For instance, children with medically complex conditions are living longer, but many struggle to access timely care.
She said provinces need to work with other partners, including the federal government, to prioritize children’s health and figure out ways to improve capacity, reduce waiting times and improve access to mental-health care.
“Every day matters in the life of a child,” she said. “We do not have time to waste for the children who are sick today.”