Health ministers making progress on funding talks, finding common ground: Duclos

OTTAWA — The impasse over a new federal-provincial health-care deal has broken as both sides hone in on how to get better results from new spending, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Friday.

At a news conference in Ottawa, Duclos said the conversation about results is "stronger now than it used to be" just weeks ago.

"I'm quite optimistic it's continuing to move in the right direction," he said.

Provincial governments and the federal Liberals are far more optimistic — flat-out confident, in fact — that a new long-term health-care funding deal will be reached in time for the next federal budget in the spring.

It's a complete turnaround from the fall, when a health ministers' meeting in Vancouver in early November fell apart. The provinces demanded significant increases to federal health transfers, while the federal government insisted new funds would only flow with clear accountability measures attached.

That came as the health-care system was once again stressed beyond its limit in the face of an unexpectedly early and intense flu season and labour shortages exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic burnout. The national shortage of children's pain and fever medication did not help.

Provinces are responsible for health-care delivery, but Ottawa provides a direct transfer to cover some of the costs. The premiers want Ottawa to increase its share of the costs from a bit more than one-fifth to above one-third.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford was the first to signal real progress in the talks on Jan. 11. He said Ontario was open to providing the accountability Ottawa was asking for as long as it was understood that provinces also needed flexibility.

Quebec Premier François Legault, who initially strongly opposed any strings being attached to the increase, said on Wednesday he was also willing to move. He had expressed optimism things were improving after meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Montreal before Christmas.

Federal sources have told The Canadian Press in recent weeks there was movement behind the scenes, largely through the efforts of Duclos and his office, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, and provincial health ministries.

The federal government has struck individual deals with provinces in the past, including with the national child-care plan. As they announced the signing of province-by-province agreements to cut child-care fees and expand access, each successive deal put pressure on the remaining premiers to join in.

Ottawa was reluctant to do the same with health care for a number of reasons, but one federal source who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly said the notion was not off the table.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Friday provinces will not be going that route.

"It's not going to be a one-off for Ontario another for someone else," Ford said. "We've all agreed, all the premiers, we all have to work together and stay united and that's exactly what we're going to do."

The premiers want to sit down as a group with Trudeau to hammer out an agreement, but that meeting has not happened no date has been set.

The last time the provinces and federal government were negotiating an increase to health transfers in 2016, the premiers were united until talks broke down and New Brunswick signed a bilateral deal. Other provinces later followed suit.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2023.

— With files from Allison Jones in Toronto.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press