HAMILTON — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will table his offer to premiers on how much money his government is willing to add to the health-care funding pot when he meets with them next month to work on a long-awaited new health-care deal.
Trudeau said Wednesday he issued an invitation for the premiers to join him in the capital on Feb. 7, but he warned that "we're not going to be signing deals on that particular moment."
"It'll be about starting the very direct hard work of the bilateral arrangements that will happen with every province, while at the same time moving forward with a frame around data, health information and results that I think every Canadian wants to see," he said.
The meeting will also be when the federal government finally shows its cards to the premiers on whether it will agree to their demands that the federal government increase its share of health-care spending from 22 per cent to 35 per cent.
"This will be a detailed conversation where the government of Canada will put before the premiers what we think are detailed and significant proposals that answer so many of the common priorities that provinces and territories have been discussing with our government over the last number of months," Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said.
Estimates suggest a 35 per cent share in 2022-23 would require close to $30 billion in additional transfers to the provinces, though Trudeau has never committed to hitting that target. If he did, it would likely be a phased-in increase that would not hit 35 per cent for several years.
The talks are looking for a long-term arrangement that could last at least 10 years.
Trudeau said in French he would be offering an "appropriate" amount of money.
Ottawa transferred $45.2 billion to provinces for health care for the current fiscal year, and currently expects that amount to increase to $49.4 billion in 2023-24. Under the existing agreement, the transfers increase by a minimum of three per cent a year, or more under higher economic growth.
LeBlanc said he is hopeful a deal can be hammered out before governments table their budgets this spring. He added in French that he does not envision a scenario in which there are any "fundamental disagreements."
The prime minister announced the planned meeting during a news conference Wednesday morning in Hamilton, where the Liberal cabinet was finishing a three-day retreat ahead of the return of Parliament next week.
Provincial and federal governments have been jockeying for a new deal for months, and premiers were waiting to see if the cabinet rendezvous would result in the meeting they've been asking to have with Trudeau for more than two years.
If they couldn't get a commitment from Trudeau, they planned to hold their own meeting in Ottawa Feb. 12 and 13 and invite him to attend. Instead, Trudeau wrote to them and invited them to a meeting five days earlier.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford immediately said he would be there.
"We have a lot discuss, including making sure the federal government properly funds the health care people rely on," he said on Twitter Wednesday morning.
Quebec Premier François Legault said he spoke with Trudeau Tuesday night about the meeting. He said he is "optimistic" a deal is possible, but he wants funding without conditions.
Trudeau and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos have been firm that any new funding will come with accountability requirements to ensure the money creates real improvements to patient care.
They are specifically looking for improvements on family medicine, seniors' care, mental health and surgical backlogs. They also want a national digital medical records update so patients can get access to their own records and their health-care providers can access them quickly to ensure timely and effective care.
Trudeau indicated Wednesday that the deal he's looking for would involve some elements that affect every province the same way, such as the medical records issue, while others would be signed on a bilateral basis to allow provinces to tailor the funding as best suits their needs.
Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson, currently the chair of the premiers' group known as the Council of the Federation, said it's difficult to comment on the idea of bilateral deals without seeing the details of any offer.
"For right now, we are still sticking to (the position) that we want to see this go to the bottom line of the Canada Health Transfer funding and up to that 35 per cent, so that they're paying their fair share," she said.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre wouldn't say Wednesday whether he supported the premiers' call for more health-care money.
Instead, he said that when it comes to improving the country's health-care system, he would focus on priorities that include shortening wait times and working with provinces to speed up credential recognition for immigrants.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that he wants any deal to protect the public health-care system, as Ontario and Alberta look to private clinics to help clear surgical backlogs.
Bloc Québécois health critic Luc Thériault said in a French statement that the party is thrilled to see Trudeau will "finally" sit down with his provincial counterparts, saying it has been 28 months since premiers first asked for such a meeting.
Canada's health-care system is strained to the breaking point following three years of COVID-19 and amid a growing shortage of health-care workers. Trudeau said Canadians have long prided themselves on the country's universal public health-care system.
"But what Canadians are experiencing right now is simply not living up to that promise or pride," he said. "Too many people don't have access to a family doctor or nurse practitioner. Wait times in emergency rooms across the country, particularly in rural areas, have become dangerously long."
He also pointed to the strain on health-care workers, many of whom are "on the verge of burnout."
In November, a health ministers' meeting ended in turmoil when provinces refused to accept any new funding deal that had strings attached.
But progress has been made since the holidays, and both Ontario and Quebec have indicated a willingness to give Ottawa what it wants — at least when it comes to data and medical record technology.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2023.
— With files from Stephanie Taylor and Mickey Djuric in Ottawa and Steve Lambert in Winnipeg.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press