Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday he hopes to announce "positive steps forward in the very near future" on health care — suggesting the years-long standoff between Ottawa and the provinces over health-care funding may be resolved soon.
Speaking to reporters in Saskatoon after touring a rare earth elements processing plant, Trudeau said the federal government and the premiers are "all very much on the same page" about what's needed to repair a system on the ropes.
"There's a need for more money," Trudeau said. "There is a need for more to deliver results for families."
WATCH: Trudeau says he and the premiers are on the 'same page' regarding health care
Government sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly, told CBC News that a deal to increase the Canada Health Transfer (CHT) is taking shape — although it might not be as big an increase as the premiers have been asking for.
Throughout Ottawa's health-care funding talks with the provinces, Trudeau has said he would not offer up any more cash until the provinces agreed to meet certain stipulations.
Some premiers, notably Quebec Premier Francois Legault, have been cool to the idea of conditions. Some provinces, such as Ontario, have said the sticking point isn't the attachment of conditions but rather the dollar amount Ottawa is willing to spend.
Echoing federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos' demand that any new federal money be targeted at five priority areas, Trudeau said Monday he wants Ottawa's money to be used by the provinces to expand access to primary care, improve mental health supports and reduce surgery backlogs.
Asked about Ontario Premier Doug Ford's plan to send more publicly funded surgeries — such as knee and hip replacements — to private hospitals to reduce wait times, Trudeau said it's the federal government's job to ensure "the Canada Health Act is always respected." He signalled, however, that he's open to ideas that "deliver better services to Canadians in health care."
The Canada Health Act requires universal access to publicly funded health services covered by provincial and territorial plans, and bans user charges and extra-billing.
"We know how important it is to continue to invest in our health-care systems," Trudeau said.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who told reporters Monday he had no advance notice of Trudeau's visit to the province, said he wants the prime minister to cut a deal.
"Now is the time for the federal government, the prime minister, to sit down with the sub-national leaders and provide a funding level to make sure that those investments are sustainable into the future," Moe said.
Asked whether he'd accept a deal with federal "strings attached," Moe said federal and provincial priorities on the file "very much line up."
"'Strings attached' is not the term I would use. Our priorities are most certainly aligned," he said.
Moe said Saskatchewan already has invested in Ottawa's five areas of interest, including long-term care homes and e-health, a program to digitize records.
He said federal dollars would help the province address labour gaps.
"We need more people on the front lines of our health-care system," he said, while touting his province's program to hire health-care workers directly from the Philippines.
During a stop in Quebec, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre blasted the Liberal government over its handling of the health file. He said it's "incredible" that Trudeau has "doubled our national debt without any improvement to our health care system." (The national debt increased from $628.9 billion in 2015 to $1.1 trillion in 2022).
"Health care, after seven years of Trudeau, is worse than ever," Poilievre said. "I understand why premiers are frustrated with the damage he's caused."
Poilievre said a government led by him would pursue three health-care priorities: shorter wait times, more doctors and nurses and "faster approvals for new cutting-edge treatments and medication."
He also vowed to work with the provinces to fast-track foreign-trained health professionals.
Canada's population is booming, thanks in part to record levels of immigration. The country is also getting older. Those twin challenges, combined with COVID-related labour shortages, have strained the country's publicly funded health-care system.
To help stabilize the system, the premiers have been asking Ottawa to dramatically increase how much it spends each year on the Canada Health Transfer (CHT) — the block of money sent to the provinces and territories to fund health services.
The premiers have made a bold request: they want Ottawa to increase its share of health-care costs from the current 22 per cent to 35 per cent — a multi-billion dollar annual cash injection. If enacted, that would increase the value of the CHT from $28 billion a year to $45.2 billion.
The federal Liberal government has said the 22 per cent figure doesn't reflect the whole funding picture.
In 1977, some tax points were transferred from Ottawa to the provinces, which allowed them to collect a larger share of all tax revenues to fund social programs like health care. Those tax points, Ottawa argues, should count for something.
The federal government also made a series of one-time top-ups to the CHT during the pandemic to help provinces deal with the health crisis.
At a December meeting of the Council of the Federation, the group that represents Canada's premiers, Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson said the prime minister must meet with premiers immediately for "serious discussions" on health care because it's a fundamental priority for Canadians.
Trudeau has, to this point, largely left the health-care negotiations to his ministers.
Government sources told CBC the prime minister likely won't sit down with the premiers until a deal is almost finalized.
The premiers are looking at holding meetings in Ottawa in mid-February, sources said. They hope enough progress can be made on a deal to convince Trudeau to join the meetings.