Toronto Star

Premiers press Trudeau on health care costs

PM vowed Ottawa would shoulder greater share, but didn’t say when

- TONDA MACCHARLES AND ALEX BALLINGALL OTTAWA BUREAU

OTTAWA— Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised provincial premiers that his federal government will shoulder a greater share of the cost of health care for Canadians.

But Trudeau didn’t say when, how — and more importantl­y by how much — he would spend boost the federal share, and the premiers did not win a major $28-billion annual hike they demanded.

The premiers’ reactions ranged from bitter “disappoint­ment” to “cautious optimism” at what was the first federal concession in more than a decade that Ottawa should raise its direct spending on health care on an ongoing basis — an area that is a provincial responsibi­lity. Right now, Ottawa sends $42 billion a year directly to provinces to spend however they see fit on their health system.

Trudeau’s promise that his government would cover the full cost of buying and shipping COVID-19 vaccines to provinces, would set up a national vaccine safety database to track the deployment of vaccines, and would spend more on datasharin­g, long-term care and pharmacare didn’t take the sting out of the fact that Trudeau gave no firm answer to their demand for more health dollars with no strings attached.

Premier Doug Ford in a release said while he was glad Trudeau will foot the bill for vaccine purchases, “the most critical issue before us today remains unaddresse­d.”

Ford said the premiers were unanimous in their proposal that would “ensure Ottawa once again pays its fair share of health-care funding in Canada. The prime minister did not accept this offer and no alternativ­e was presented to the premiers to address the longstandi­ng and growing healthcare funding gap.”

Trudeau blamed the uncertaint­y that the pandemic has cast over the economy. He said however that helping provinces through the immediate crisis remains “job number one.”

“I recognize that this pandemic has exacerbate­d and highlighte­d the long-standing challenges faced by health-care systems across the provinces and territorie­s and that the federal government will be there to step up its contributi­ons,” Trudeau told reporters.

“But we know that we need to do that in a way that’s right for the coming years and the coming decades and right now there is a lack of certainty on what our economic situation and even our health situation will look like in three months let alone in three years.”

Quebec Premier François Legault, who chairs the Council of the Federation, said all leaders were “very disappoint­ed” in the outcome.

Citing the possibilit­y of a federal election next year, Legault said he will seek support among the opposition parties in Ottawa after Trudeau “refused” to discuss provincial demands for more permanent health-care funding. Legault said Trudeau also turned down an offer to meet with premiers in January or February because the prime minister believes it was “premature.”

“Provinces and territorie­s form a united coalition that will fight to the end so that the federal government does its fair share to fund health care,” Legeault said after the meeting.

Asked whether he is planning to campaign on the issue during an upcoming federal election, Legault demurred, stating in French that it’s “too early to say that.”

Still, the Quebec premier left no doubt he will do what he can to press Trudeau to agree to provincial demands, which Legault said should come “with no conditions.”

Canadian Medical Associatio­n president Dr. Ann Collins called it a “missed opportunit­y” for all government­s to address “pressing” issues facing the health care system.

“Every day, health care workers are collaborat­ing to care for

Canadians. We are asking our federal and provincial and territoria­l leaders to do the same for the well-being of our country.”

The CMA called for the next federal budget “to do more than just deliver on the government’s current commitment­s” like funding for long-term care, but to lay out “next steps on collaborat­ing on ensuring longterm, sustained health-care funding.”

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said he was “cautiously optimistic” about Trudeau’s admission that Ottawa should pay more.

What McNeil does not want is the federal government to divide and conquer the provinces by negotiatin­g separate bilateral agreements, which is how the most recent long-term-funding increases have been reached, saying it should be a “national” approach.

The provinces and territorie­s want Ottawa to increase its annual transfers by $28 billion, so that the federal government funds 35 per cent of total health-care costs across the country.

Trudeau repeated his refrain that the federal government has spent eight out of every 10 dollars that government­s have provided to keep people safe in the pandemic. He dismissed fears that U.S. President Donald Trump might withhold a shipment destined for Canada that is transiting through Kentucky this weekend.

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