During last week’s federal cabinet retreat in Hamilton, Ontario, ministers used the time to determine their priorities for the spring parliamentary session. One of these priorities is bringing federal negotiations with provinces on healthcare funding over the finish line. At the start of the retreat, the prime minister said he had invited all premiers to discuss the issue in Ottawa on February 7th. In exchange for the increase in funding that provinces and territories have been requesting, the federal government wants agreement on national reforms to improve health care systems across the country.
A deal looked to be far off in November, when the country’s health ministers could not even agree on a joint statement at the end of their meeting with federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos. Since then, optimism has increased that the federal government can negotiate a 10-year health funding deal that will see a significant increase for both the Canada Health Transfer and bilateral financial agreements. The premiers have asked for the federal government to increase its share of healthcare costs from 22% to 35% as systems across the country are failing due to the strain of staff shortages, surgery backlogs and over-crowded emergency rooms.
The political temperature on this issue has been rising since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the Trudeau government is under pressure to help find solutions to the growing healthcare crisis. “The most important thing for Canadians is that we build a system that improves right now, but that can hold and continue to serve Canadians in this public, universal model for decades to come,” said Prime Minister Trudeau ahead of this First Minister’s meeting next week. Trudeau’s cabinet colleagues are hopeful that an agreement may be reached during this meeting. Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc stated last week that he thinks a deal could be reached in February. He added that the government “wants to continue the momentum that I think all of us feel in terms of getting to the right agreement”. Minister LeBlanc acknowledged that the final deal may be structured on two tracks. This first is a broad overall increase to the Canada Health Transfer, which would be worth almost $50 billion this year. The second track would be a set of bilateral deals to address province-specific issues. Earlier this month, Minister Duclos outlined again that the provinces need to commit to resolution plans on growing issues in the healthcare systems, including access to family health teams, reducing backlogs in surgeries, retaining and recruiting health care workers, further investments in mental health services – and modernizing healthcare systems so medical records can be shared with various providers electronically.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said last week that her upcoming 2023 federal budget will prioritize spending on health care and the green energy transition. Freeland also warned that the budget will ensure that this fiscal plan is sustainable during what is expected to be an economically challenging year. Although challenging months may lay ahead, healthcare is already in crisis across Canada. This is the message provincial and territorial health ministers have delivered to Ottawa – that help is needed now.