Public opinion pushed provinces, Ottawa into alignment over health care, N.B. premier says

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, second from right, speaks during a press conference in Moncton, N.B., on Aug. 22, 2022. Seated with him are, from left to right, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press - image credit)
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, second from right, speaks during a press conference in Moncton, N.B., on Aug. 22, 2022. Seated with him are, from left to right, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press - image credit)

New Brunswick's premier says public pressure has been the key factor in recent progress toward a deal on health-care funding between the federal government and provinces.

Blaine Higgs said in an interview airing Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live that he was optimistic premiers and the federal government would be able to meet to sign a deal in February. The two sides face a time crunch to get a deal done so that any new changes can be reflected in a spring federal budget.

But as negotiations have dragged on, Canadians have witnessed a series of high-profile instances of failures in the health-care system, including long delays, ER closures and even deaths of Canadians waiting for care.

"The public are expecting a better health-care system in our respective provinces.... They expect if we're putting more money in the system we have to see results," Higgs told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.

WATCH | New Brunswick premier discusses progress on health funding:

Premiers and the federal government have been locked in a running battle over funding for the health-care system for years, with provincial leadership urging Ottawa to make significantly higher contributions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during the early days of the pandemic that he was supportive of the federal government taking on more of the financial burden, but negotiations would have to wait until the crisis subsided.

Provinces and the federal government have traded sharp public attacks — including a paid advertising campaign organized by the premiers — but now both sides have indicated that significant progress has been made in recent weeks toward a deal.

One issue was a federal government demand that the provinces commit to using increased health funding on an array of broad subject areas, including reducing operation backlogs, primary care and mental health care.

WATCH | Intergovernmental affairs minister outlines possibility of health deal: 

"I've been always a bit focused on outcomes with spending money as well, and I think that the federal position on this was based certainly on public opinion, and I think we've all realized that that is appropriate," Higgs said.

He noted that provinces were now also supportive of the idea of increased data sharing.

Higgs added that he was looking for a "continuous" deal on health-care funding.

"On the 10-year portion ... it might be based on evaluating the performance in different areas and standards and deciding we need to raise the bar collectively, and that's fine, but I think we want to get on a continuous funding model," Higgs said.

The Liberal government's approach to health care has been criticized by opposition parties, with Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre promising recently to help provinces bring more foreign-trained health workers into the system. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said this week new funding should carry with it a requirement that provinces stop steps toward privatization of health-care delivery in Canada.

Deal will not immediately solve issues: LeBlanc

In a separate interview Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said a deal could be done in February "if we're lucky."

"If it drags a week into March, whatever, but we want to continue the momentum that I think all of us feel in terms of getting to the right agreement."

LeBlanc acknowledged that the final deal may be structured on two tracks: one broad overall increase to the Canada Health Transfer — worth almost $50 billion this year — and a second set of bilateral deals to address province-specific issues.

While LeBlanc expressed optimism that a deal could be done, he cautioned that new funding would not resolve "overnight" the issues with delays and staff shortages Canadians are currently experiencing.

"I think Canadians have to understand that our support is not going to immediately fix some of the challenges that provinces, in our view, are diligently working on ... to ensure the system gets through this very difficult period," LeBlanc said.

"The conversation around the importance of health care is not going to go away."