The Hamilton Spectator
A political win, but no quick fixes
Canadians have become accustomed to long waiting times for medical treatment in this country. So perhaps it isn’t a surprise that when Canada’s first ministers showed up for a meeting in Ottawa to treat the ailments of the health-care system, the immediate result was: “Just wait.”
Nothing in Tuesday’s meeting between Justin Trudeau and the premiers produced a quick fix for a system in crisis.
It wasn’t exactly take two aspirins and call in the morning, but it was close — take this $46.2-billion plan, Trudeau told his fellow first ministers, and call us in a day, or a week or so. Premiers, clutching Ottawa’s less-than-expected prescription, plan to meet “within days” — maybe as soon as Friday.
In the short term, that is a political win for the federal government, albeit a modest one. No one said “No” to the money being waved in front of the provinces and territories.
Provinces scored a symbolic win, too, when Trudeau acknowledged in his end-of-day news conference that Canada wasn’t going to emerge from this current crisis with one, cherished national health-care system. The country may have gone through COVID-19 together, but it will exit from the pandemic as a complex web of health-care delivery systems across the nation. Universal health care, but not unilateral or even united.
Despite that Trudeau nod to provinces’ authority, enthusiasm was in short supply when premiers filed out of the brief, two-hour gathering on Tuesday, which the prime minister had pointedly billed as a “working meeting,” not a negotiation.
“We see this is a starting point,” Premier Doug Ford said. “It’s a down payment on further discussions.”
The problems plaguing Canada’s health-care system are long term, chronic ones, but politics is measured in small, shortterm victories. Another meeting, another set of discussions, then, represent a short-term solution. But the first ministers were forced to admit all they’ve done is take a step toward the more enduring, “transformational” change that is required to preserve universal health care in Canada.
To be fair, the proposal that Trudeau put before the premiers on Tuesday hints at the kind of long-term change the system needs: improved access to family doctors and private care; more health-care workers and better compensation for them; increased attention to mental health.
“What gets measured gets done,” Trudeau said.
“Data saves lives,” federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said.
These goals aren’t framed as “conditions” but they are contained instead in the data that Ottawa is set on tracking — and rewarding — through future side deals with the provinces. This is where, once again, Canadians are being told to just wait.
Officials close to Trudeau had been warning there would be no major breakthrough announced after first ministers held their meeting. The bestcase scenario, they said, was that premiers would leave Ottawa saying there was more to discuss.
In that respect, it was mission accomplished. Premiers looked for all kinds of ways to say “we’ll see” to the Trudeau proposal without rejecting it out of hand. Some, such as Newfoundland’s Andrew Furey, said afterward they could see ways to get from here to some better future for health care.
Once upon a time in Canada, Canadians went to the emergency room to get speedy, urgent treatment, often as a last resort. Nowadays, in a world of doctor shortages and a crumbling system, the emergency room has become the first stop, with patients funnelled to specialized, subsequent treatment.
In many ways, the first ministers’ health meeting has gone through a similar evolution. It’s no longer the fast and urgent fix, but the place to start before the ailing patient of Canada’s medicare is sent off to the specialists in the provinces. And this is Canada and the healthcare system in 2023: the problem is urgent, even critical, but the solution requires a longer wait than expected.