Premiers gather in Victoria to present united demand for more health-care cash

·7 min read
Premier John Horgan answers questions during a news conference in the press theatre at the legislature in Victoria, Friday, March 11, 2022. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Premier John Horgan answers questions during a news conference in the press theatre at the legislature in Victoria, Friday, March 11, 2022. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Canada's premiers are in Victoria, British Columbia today for two days of meetings where they're pressing their demand for more health-care funding from the federal government.

"This is not something that we take likely, it's not something that we are looking at as a temporary measure. We need to re-imagine public health care in Canada," B.C. Premier John Horgan, this year's chair of the Council of the Federation, said Monday in Victoria.

Horgan said that provincial governments do not have enough money to hire enough workers to ensure that their health systems continue to function well into the future.

The premier said that provinces need to ensure they have the funding to train "the next generation of health care workers to take the burden off those we celebrated during the pandemic ..."

"It's just not good enough to show our gratitude," he added. "We need to now show that we're committed to those workers, we're committed to those patients and that's what these discussions are about this afternoon and into tomorrow."

The Council of the Federation, the association of Canada's 13 provincial and territorial premiers, wants the federal government to increase its share of health-care funding from the current level of 22 per cent to 35 per cent, and to maintain funding at that new level into the future.

Horgan said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised the premiers that, once the pandemic public health emergency was over, the two sides would meet to hash out the future of health care funding in Canada. No such meeting has been set, he added.

"We're eight months now past the turning point, in my opinion, for the pandemic, although we still have challenges ahead," he said. "But we certainly should be able to sit down and find a way forward with public health care."

Quibbling over money

Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos' office told says it has invested more than $72 billion in health care since the beginning of the pandemic, including $2 billion to help provinces address surgical backlogs.

Horgan said that while the money was welcome, it was a one-time cash disbursement and does not allow provincial governments to make long-term staffing plans.

His office also said it has committed to bilateral deals with the provinces that would mean $3 billion for long-term care, $3 billion for mental health services and $3 billion for home care.

"We have clearly demonstrated that we are willing to do our part in ensuring the sustainability and accessibility of the universal publicly funded health care system that we all cherish as Canadians," Duclos' office said in a media statement.

"Canadians aren't interested in a sterile fiscal debate. Canadians are interested in results: they want care and that is what we want to focus on."

Horgan said that while the federal and provincial governments could continue to bicker about money, Canadians just want a public health care system that works.

"What Canadians want us to do is to sit down like adults and figure out how we resurrect publicly funded health care," Horgan said.

Planning for the long term

In 1977, the way the federal government funds health care was changed. Direct federal funding for some health services was reduced and the provinces were given authority to collect more in income and corporate taxes to fund health services directly.

The federal government says that when those tax points are taken into consideration, the federal government actually covered 27.9 per cent of health care costs in Canada in 2021-22.

When the money Ottawa spends on bilateral deals for long-term care, home care, mental health and some other services is rolled in, the portion of health care spending covered by the federal government in 2021-22 came closer to 38.5 per cent, a federal official said.

A federal government official speaking on background told CBC News that the premiers' demand for a $28 billion annual increase to the Canada Health Transfer — without a discussion about what the money would be used for — will not fly with Ottawa.

Horgan said the premiers have submitted specific demands to the federal government describing the problem areas. He said they can't take steps to improve health services until they get an idea of how they will be funded long-term.

"We can't determine what we're going to do with money we don't have," Horgan said. "We're working on building out our budgets right across the country to meet the expectations of patients, to meet the expectations of our citizens, and we can go a lot further if we had a partner that was carrying half the load."

Liam Richards/The Canadian Press
Liam Richards/The Canadian Press

Canada's nursing leaders say they've told the premiers that patients and nurses are suffering through a "dire staffing crisis" that threatens the sustainability of public health care.

In a media statement, Canadian Federation of Nurses president Linda Silas said the system is "on the brink of disaster."

Silas said nurses have been "struggling through extreme staffing shortages, forced overtime and cancelled vacations, with no end in sight."

Silas said that while provincial commitments to strengthen health care are welcome, "no one province or territory can solve this on their own" and federal funding will be key.

Long-term funding essential: Horgan

The federal government's move to fund specific health programs, like long-term and home care, has upset some provinces. They say the federal government should just give the provinces the money and let them decide where it should be spent, rather than tethering funding to specific programs.

"We're asking for provincial autonomy within the confines of what the Constitution lays out," Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said last week

Horgan said that targeted funding for specific initiatives does not help provinces plan long-term, or deliver health-care services in the short term.

"One-time funding does not help us build the system. It doesn't help us put in place a human resource strategy," Horgan told CBC Radio's The House in an interview that aired on Saturday.

"Instead, we find ourselves, in some circumstances, poaching from each other. Highest bidder gets the most nurses. That's not how Canada should operate. That's now how we want it to operate."

Horgan said Monday that if the federal government boosted its share of health-care funding, it would allow provincial governments to build up staffing levels and make poaching staff from other jurisdictions a thing of the past.

Economic growth and energy security

Horgan said the premiers also will discuss the economic recovery and the cost-of-living crisis. Last week, Moe suggested that conversation would include the rising cost of energy and how the western provinces can, with federal help, begin to address that issue.

Moe said he'll be asking the federal government to take "a very serious look at policy developments" he claimed are preventing energy production. He said Ottawa hasn't done enough to engage with the United States to resolve issues like the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The pipeline was supposed to bring Canadian oil to U.S. refineries but was cancelled last year by President Joe Biden, who made the project's termination a key campaign promise.

Moe said his plan for Canadian and North American energy security "includes an east-to-west corridor" for energy. Quebec Premier François Legault has said already that his government would not tolerate an oil pipeline through his province.

Legault has said in the past that his government would tolerate a natural gas pipeline through the province — but his government last year cancelled a liquefied natural gas project and the pipeline that would have supplied it over environmental concerns.

Horgan said that while energy is an important topic, so is the wave of labour shortages afflicting businesses across the country.

"Employers can't find people," he said. "They can't find baristas, they can't find welders, they can't find nurse practitioners. Wherever you look at the economy, we are short of people.

"That means we have to focus on how we are going to build out the national economy province by province ... and that of course is what we'll be discussing over the next number of days."

After the July 11 and 12 premiers' meetings — which are taking place in person for the first time since 2019 — the premiers will address the media and take questions at the Fairmont Empress hotel in Victoria.

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