VICTORIA — The federal government needs to stop “quibbling” with provinces and territories about health care and sit down with them to work out how to restore Canada’s “crumbling” system, British Columbia Premier John Horgan said Tuesday.
It’s been eight months since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to meet with the 13 premiers to address their request for stable, long-term health-care funding, and that meeting is overdue, Horgan told a news conference at the start of the final day of the premiers’ Council of the Federation gathering in Victoria.
“That’s why we’re reinforcing today unanimity in our desire to have the federal government call a meeting …. We can sit down and solve these problems for Canadians, not for provinces and the federal government, but for Canadians,” said Horgan, who chairs the council.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the provinces and territories are spending record amounts on health care, but it’s not enough, and the different levels of government need to meet to discuss the way forward.
“We can’t keep up. Our health-care workers, our doctors and nurses are being run off their feet. We saw all across Canada a huge challenge with capacity during the pandemic and it’s not getting better,” Kenney told media on Tuesday.
“You’ve got a consensus from the NDP in B.C. to Alberta conservatives and everybody in between, east to west,” he said. “The real question (is) is this a real priority for the federal government? So far it appears not to be.”
Earlier Tuesday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the federal government has been working with the provinces and it recognizes that health systems are in crisis.
“Many workers have left the profession … because of the physical and mental health toll that COVID-19 brought to them and their families,” he said in an interview.
“Provinces and territories legitimately feel that crisis because they are most directly impacted by the health-care crisis that we’re all seeing across the country.”
Duclos said he’s been working steadily with his provincial and territorial counterparts, while transferring billions of dollars to shore up the system.
“We have stepped up together in terms of policy but also in terms of funding,” he said, adding Ottawa has already agreed to do more over the long term.
Duclos did not offer a timeline for those negotiations. Previously, Trudeau said the talks would happen when the pandemic is over.
The premiers have called on the federal government to boost its share of health-care funding to 35 per cent from what they have said amounts to 22 per cent.
Horgan has said stable, long-term funding that’s closer to an equal split between Ottawa and the provinces is necessary to reimagine Canada’s health system.
The B.C. premier addressed remarks in a CBC interview earlier this week by Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, who said Ottawa would not increase its health-care funding so the provinces can then reduce their own spending.
Horgan said it’s a “cop-out” and a “mechanism to divert attention” for Ottawa to suggest its funding depends on what the provinces do with the money.
“It all goes into a pot and it all comes out for the services that Canadians need. That’s our jurisdiction, that’s what we are required to do and that’s what we do happily,” he said.
The premiers and their governments are “accountable every day” for their expenditures in their legislatures and budget processes, Horgan added.
“We work on trying to balance the needs for education, for transportation, for health-care services and a range of other programs that provinces deliver,” he said.
“We’re not saying we don’t want to be accountable for the expenditures we make, we’re saying to Ottawa, the system isn’t working.”
LeBlanc has also said the premiers’ assertion that the federal government pays 22 per cent of Canada’s health-care costs is “fake,” because it doesn’t take into account tax points transferred from Ottawa to the provinces last year.
Currently, federal contributions to provincial health systems grow in line with a three-year moving average of nominal gross domestic product.
Based on that formula, the health transfer payment to provinces increased by 4.8 per cent in the most recent federation budget, amounting to an extra $12 billion projected over the next five years compared to pre-pandemic estimates.
Kenney also announced that Alberta is funding a study to examine the potential for provinces and territories to recognize each other’s trade and labour regulations.
Canada has a patchwork of thousands of different provincial and territorial regulations that hinder economic growth and add costs for consumers, he said, adding efforts to harmonize those rules are moving far too slowly.
It would be a “revolutionary step forward” for the provinces and territories to develop a model to recognize each other’s regulations, he said.
Kenney said he believes the idea was well received when he discussed it with the other premiers Tuesday, adding they were expected to release a statement later in the day calling for expedited work on a “mutual recognition model.”
He acknowledged anxiety around provinces “poaching” each other’s health-care workers, but said patients aren’t better off under a series of labour “silos” across Canada.
“(The premiers) all want to take care of their citizens, but at the same time understand that we would all benefit from a more streamlined movement within the country.”
The study from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute is due to the Alberta government by September.
— With files from Laura Osman in Ottawa
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 12, 2022.
Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press