Health care important to voters but absent on campaign trail

Canada Politics
Health care important to voters but absent on campaign trail

Canada’s federal party leaders have been near silent on health care in the early weeks of the federal election campaign, despite the importance of the issue to voters.

Fifty-eight per cent of respondents said heath care was one of the top three issues in determining their vote, ahead of jobs, economic management and taxes, according to an Abacus survey of 1,500 Canadians aged 18 or older done in June.

The issue was particularly important to Canadians aged 60 and older, with 61 per cent listing health care as a deciding factor in their vote. But even millennials consider health care a major concern — 52 per cent of respondents aged 18-29 said it was a top-three issue.

Despite those numbers and the prominence of health care in past elections, party leaders have largely avoided discussing it since the campaign began on Aug. 2.

‘A slow start’ for health care

“We sort of expected it to be a slow start,” Dr. Chris Simpson, election lead for the Canadian Medical Association, tells Yahoo Canada News about the campaign so far. “An issue like health care, which is so controversial and so emotional, can be unpredictable for [the leaders].”

There is no specific mention of health care on the Liberal Party of Canada or Conservative Party of Canada websites, though Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau previously promised in a letter to Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard to hold a first ministers’ conference with discussion of health care in his first six months in office, if his party forms the next government. 

“We want to look at all these things,” Liberal health critic Dr. Hedy Fry said about health care issues such as wait times, funding and senior care. 

“But we don’t believe we should impose all our positions on the province,” Fry tells Yahoo Canada News.

Her party is committed to restoring the health care partnership between the federal government and the provinces and territories, she said, and further details of the Liberal plan on health care will roll out during the 78-day campaign.

The official website for the NDP mentions the shortage of family doctors across Canada and a commitment to working with the provinces and territories on health care, but doesn’t detail the party’s plan for health. Last month NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was seen as backing away from previous health care promises made about restoring transfer payments to the provinces, CBC News reported.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May included a call for national pharmacare and an increase in the Canada Health Transfer when she announced her party’s strategy for seniors on Wednesday.

Representatives from the Conservatives, the NDP, and the Green Party weren’t immediately available for comment.

Discussion of issues like improving the country’s health care system, now ranked 10th out of 11 OECD nations, and looking ahead at the country’s aging population and its need for prescription-medicine solutions, acute and chronic care and home support would be welcome during this campaign, Douglas Angus, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, tells Yahoo Canada News.

But Angus doesn’t expect to go beyond perhaps a discussion of funding promises, which he said would do little to change the fact that the country is still facing the same health care issues it was when the then-Liberal government injected $41 billion into the system over 10 years in its 2004 health care accord. 

“Don’t hold your breath waiting for a really, really good discussion of where we go with health care during this campaign,” Angus said — though he added he’d be delighted to be proven wrong.

“There really is a huge distance between what all the pollsters tell us is important to Canadians and what the politicians are saying,” Dr. Simpson said. “At some point the two have to come together.”

Both Dr. Simpson and Angus are participants in an upcoming Ottawa panel on health and the federal election, hosted by the Hill Times on Sept. 10.

Issues Important to Voters

As for voters themselves, they are looking for solutions on a national pharmacy plan, continuing care standards and a new health funding agreement between the federal and provincial governments, according to the Abacus poll.

To the last point, Canada’s health policy is set to undergo a significant change in 2016-17, when a new federal policy for health care funding is set for adoption, Maclean’s magazine reported. Under the current policy, federal funding to the provinces for health care increase by six per cent annually. But in 2016-17, health care contributions will be tied to economic growth, with a floor of three per cent.

This could be a concern for the provinces, given that economic growth is currently poor in many regions and others have a heavier burden from aging populations. Under the new system, provinces like Nova Scotia and New Brunswick could see health costs eat up a majority of their provincial budgets, Dr. Simpson said. 

“It would really create a huge inequality and we’d see a huge difference in standard of living in Alberta versus places like Nova Scotia, for example,” he said.

Nova Scotia’s percentage of the population aged 65 and over was 16.6 per cent in the 2011 census, compared to 11.1 per cent in Alberta.

“The Canada Health Act will only work if we look at how Canada’s provinces and territories form a partnership,” Dr. Fry said. The Conservative government’s changes to health care transfer payments creates disparities between different provinces and regions and reduces the ability of the provinces to plan ahead on health spending, she said.

But simply adding more money to the provincial coffers isn’t the solution, even if it makes for a good election promise, Angus said. 

“It’s often when you don’t have the resources that you try to come up with creative, entrepreneurial ways of solving your problems,” he said. 

That will take leadership from the political parties, Angus said, not just financial promises or even specific policy plans.

While they would welcome more concrete plans on issues like seniors care — the focus of their Demand A Plan campaign — the Canadian Medical Association hopes mostly for a commitment to further discussion on health care, Dr. Simpson said.

“We’re not asking for detailed promises. What we want is just a commitment to engage. That’s all we’re asking,” he said. “It’s very difficult to understand why that is tough to commit to.”