If voters return his party to government on Sept. 20, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised Monday to spend $3 billion more on health care to help the provinces hire 7,500 new family doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners.
Speaking to reporters at a campaign stop in Halifax, Trudeau said a government led by him would "rebuild" a health-care system ravaged by COVID-19 by recruiting more physicians and eliminating wait-lists that have grown during the pandemic.
While the federal Canada Health Transfer has steadily increased under Trudeau, repeated provincial calls for a much larger cash injection to help address mounting costs and longer wait-times have gone unanswered.
But the Liberal leader said today he hears that the federal government "needs to step up with more funding to make sure people are getting better care right across the country. So that's what we're going to do."
If re-elected, Trudeau said, a Liberal government would also send $6 billion to the provinces to help address the wait for some procedures — a financial commitment above and beyond the $4 billion that was earmarked in the most recent budget.
A Trudeau-led government would also float some $400 million to the provinces and territories to expand virtual primary care services, bringing the total health-care commitment announced today to some $10 billion in new spending.
"Health care is a responsibility of the provinces and we will always respect that," he said. "But we're stepping up as a federal government because we know you need to get care when and where you need it. At the end of the day, that's what really matters."
Trudeau made a similar promise during the 2019 campaign — $6 billion to hire more doctors — but the Canadian Medical Association recently said they "have yet to see any real commitment to this ongoing issue."
Pre-pandemic data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) suggests the number of new physicians added to the system has outpaced population growth in recent years, but many provinces are still facing a shortage of family doctors.
In Nova Scotia, for example, where the state of the health-care system was a major issue in the recent provincial election campaign, more than 69,000 people are on a waiting list to get a primary care physician. That number has grown from 25,000 just four years ago. In some parts of the province, the wait-time for a knee replacement is more than 1,000 days.
Tory, Liberal approaches to health funding vary
Trudeau said Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole would only make the problem worse, because the Tory leader would "cut services like health care."
However, the Conservative platform released last week shows O'Toole is actually prepared to spend more on the health-care transfer each year than what the Liberals have budgeted.
WATCH | Trudeau says Liberals focused on results, not dollars for health-care system:
O'Toole vowed to boost the annual growth rate of the Canada Health Transfer to at least six per cent from its current rate, which is tied to how much the economy grows in a given year, with a floor of three per cent. The Conservatives say the more generous health transfer to the provinces would cost the federal treasury nearly $60 billion over the next 10 years.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the cracks in our health-care system and reminded us all of the need to strengthen it. Canada's Conservatives believe that the federal government should pay its fair share," the Conservative platform reads.
"Under the last Conservative government, federal transfers to the provinces grew at six per cent per year. Unfortunately, in 2017, the Trudeau government cut this in half, putting lives at risk."
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Trudeau said the Liberal party isn't interested in cutting a blank cheque for the provinces to do what they want on health care. Rather, Trudeau said, they want new federal money targeted to particular outcomes.
The two main parties have been trading barbs over health-care funding at a time when voters are telling pollsters it's one of the issues they care most about.
Campaign video flagged
On Sunday, Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland posted to Twitter a selectively edited clip of O'Toole speaking about health care. In the video, O'Toole said he would be open to more for-profit health care in Canada to help address some of the current system's failings.
While willing to add more private elements to medicare, O'Toole said universal access remains paramount — a quote that was left out of Freeland's edited video montage. Twitter has since flagged the clip as "manipulated media."
The Conservative party's lawyers have asked Yves Côté, the commissioner of Canada elections, to investigate whether the "cynical motive to misinform" is a violation of the Elections Act.
Asked about the fracas over the manipulated video, Trudeau said the clip accurately reflects O'Toole position.
"What's really important here is, in the middle of a pandemic, O'Toole came out unequivocally in support of private health care, for-profit health care. We posted the interview in its entirety and I encourage all Canadians to take a look and see what Erin O'Toole has to say on the future of health care," he said.
In the 2020 video clip posted by Freeland, O'Toole said that to drive innovation in the sector, Canada "can't have just one old model that is increasingly becoming inefficient," and more "public/private synergies" are needed to improve health-care outcomes.
He also praised Saskatchewan's past decision to outsource some diagnostic imaging to private operators as a "brilliant move" because it reduced wait-times for MRIs and CT scans.
In a 2016 letter, former federal minister Jane Philpott said she wanted the province to put an end to encouraging private payment for medical scans — but the practice has continued.
O'Toole dodged questions Monday about what aspects of the health-care system he'd like to see in private hands. He was noncommittal when asked if he'd stop provinces from allowing private companies to offer more health-care services.
While O'Toole voiced support for a reworked medicare while running for the party's leadership last year, the Conservative party's election platform makes no mention of a new role for the private sector.
"Let me be perfectly clear, I 100 per cent support our public and universal system and I always have. It's been the backbone that we've relied on throughout the pandemic," O'Toole told reporters at a campaign event in Ottawa.
Rather than cut health care, O'Toole said, he'd pump billions into the public health-care system through "stable and predictable" new funding allotments that are larger than what the Liberals have promised.
"What is very disappointing is in an election that was called by Mr. Trudeau amidst a fourth wave, he's dividing and misleading Canadians on a daily basis. With their social media, they're importing American-style misleading politics. I think Canadians deserve better than that," O'Toole said, while announcing a new Conservative policy that would require some federally regulated employers to include worker representation on their boards of directors.
O'Toole's plan to spend more was criticized by People's Party Leader Maxime Bernier, who said the Conservatives are "promising more billions in new spending and targeted tax measures funded by borrowed money — just like the Liberals."
Bernier said that, if elected, he would dramatically curb federal spending, end all COVID-related support programs and get back to a balanced budget in just four years' time.
"Instead of buying votes with borrowed money, a responsible government should aggressively cut spending, balance the budget as quickly as possible, and then lower taxes in a prudent manner to put money back into Canadians' pockets," he said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said it's hypocritical for Trudeau to criticize O'Toole when the Liberal government has done nothing to reverse privatization in the long-term care sector, which was hit hard by COVID-19 in the early days of the crisis.
"Justin Trudeau likes to campaign on private health care during election time, but he just voted to let corporations profit off health care for seniors. If he's really against private health care, why does he think it's good enough for our seniors?" Singh said, referencing a non-binding motion the NDP tabled in Parliament earlier this year.
"Justin Trudeau says the right thing about access to doctors, but his record shows that he has no intention of following through. People who don't have access to doctors can't afford Justin Trudeau's empty promises anymore."
At his campaign stop in Montreal, Singh announced that an NDP government would end all federal subsidies to the oil and gas sector and instead spend $500 million to support "Indigenous-led stewardship programs" focused on protecting the country's land, water and forests.