Provinces and territories need details on federal money for health care: minister

VANCOUVER — Canada's health ministers are hoping for "serious engagement" by the federal government after an announcement that it's ready to increase funding for health care, British Columbia's health minister says.

Adrian Dix, who is hosting a two-day meeting of his counterparts, said positive comments by the prime minister and the federal health minister earlier Monday are good news after nearly a year of "radio silence" on money matters.

However, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos provided no specifics about whether provinces and territories would get what they're asking for — a hike to 35 per cent of funding, from the current 22 per cent, through the Canada Health Transfer.

Duclos said before the ministers held a news conference that the jurisdictions must commit to expanding the use of common key health indicators and to build a "world-class" health data system for the country.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said earlier in Montreal that the government has committed to investing "significantly more" in health care, but it wants assurances that Canadians have access to a family doctor and to mental health services.

Dix said health ministers would be asking Duclos for details on funding when they meet with him Tuesday.

"I prefer to take a positive view of the remarks by both the prime minister and the federal health minister, but also to say that the provinces are united in our response and also united in the dramatic expenditures that we are making right now to address the current and future health human resources in the country," he said.

"We're delivering resources to the front lines, and I hope the federal government is going to support us in delivering even more."

Dix said given what the territories and provinces have been through with the pandemic, a national conference is needed on the health transfer, the federal money doled out to all jurisdictions, to reach a funding agreement.

The promise of such a gathering was made by Trudeau in 2015 when he formed government, Dix said.

The current strain on the health-care system demands urgency because “this is going to be a difficult winter," he said, referring to an expected spike in respiratory illnesses "including but not limited to COVID-19."

All provinces and territories have forged ahead with changes to try and secure more health professionals, but they face significant challenges without more funding, he said during a break from the first in-person meetings of health ministers since 2018.

"It is unprecedented, the degree of action in systems that have already faced two years of some of the most profound pressure," he said, adding every jurisdiction has been in a state of crisis.

However, Dix declined to say whether he and his counterparts would agree to any conditions before a funding boost.

The federal government provided a total of $2 billion to all jurisdictions in July in order to reduce backlogs of surgeries and other procedures during the pandemic.

It said the one-time top-up would build on the $45 billion provinces and territories will receive this year through the Canada Health Transfer, which increases by about three per cent a year, down from a high of six per cent.

Along with that infusion of cash, the federal government has also struck decade-long bilateral deals with every jurisdiction, with a total of $11 billion specifically targeted to improve home care and mental health, along with performance objectives that would have to be met.

Dr. Alika Lafontaine, president of the Canadian Medical Association, said he's glad more money will be going to provinces and territories to make a difference for patients, but he too was waiting for details on the expected hike in funding.

It's important for all the health ministers to come to an agreement for the sake of the country's health-care system and rising costs, said Lafontaine, an anesthesiologist in Grand Prairie, Alta.

"The pressures are so heavy on systems right now that we don't have a choice but to accept and move forward together. The real question is, is it going to happen right now or is it going to happen weeks or months from now?" he said.

"I think what's really concerning for patients and providers is that it will take longer than it needs to because we can't lean in and actually work out these things right now."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 7, 2022.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press