All 10 provinces and three territories haveagreed to providewait-time guarantees in a treatment area of their choosing by 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a speech to participants at a conference on hospital wait times in Ottawa Wednesday. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press) )

Harper, who spoke to medical professionals at a conference in Ottawa, said the provinces and territories will provide the guarantees by drawing upon more than $1 billion allocated in the March federal budget.

The prime minister said the new agreement is part of the government's plan to deliver onits top five election promises.

"During the last election campaign, our party made a clear and unequivocal commitment to Canadians. We promised to sit down with the provinces to develop patient wait-time guarantees,"he said.

"As a result, Nova Scotians, Manitobans and Albertans battling cancer will soon obtain more timely radiation treatment. Ontarians will face a shorter wait for cataract surgery.

"Quebecers waiting for hip or knee replacement surgery will have access to this care more quickly."

Before Wednesday's announcement, three provinces — Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia — had each pledged to provide a patient wait-time guarantee in a specific treatment area.

Harper said the guarantees will be in at least one of the following areas: cancer care, hip and knee replacement, cardiac care, diagnostic imaging, cataract surgeries or primary care.

The areas have been selected by each province and territory based onits priorities, capacity and different starting points, he added.

"When a government makes an investment in the health of people, it's making an investment in the country's future,"he said.

Details yet to be worked out

Harper did not say how the federal government will ensure that the provinces and territories deliver on the guarantees and it was not clear how long individual waiting periods for various procedures will be.

Harper spoke at the annual Taming of the Queue conference, a meeting in Ottawa that has focused on the issue of wait times since 2004.

The prime minister thanked the medical community at the conference fordrawing attention tothe issue of wait-times.

Tom MacIntosh, spokesperson for Canadian Research Policy Networks,a think-tank that organizedthe conference, said the details still need to be worked out about the guarantees but theylikely lead to more efficient health care.

"What the prime minister has announced today is one piece of the puzzle of managing and reducing wait times. It's not the entire puzzle yet," he said.

"Many of those pieces are beginning to fall into place in many provinces, but we are stilla ways awayfrom a full fledged wait-times guarantee."

'Benchmark' rather than 'guarantee'

MacIntosh said health-care professionals prefer to use the word "benchmark" or "target," rather than the word "guarantee," which he described as a political term.

"There's a real concern that failure to meet a guarantee could lead to court cases," he added.

But MacIntosh said the agreement is still good news.

In the budget,Harper said more than $1 billion is divided into two federal initiatives.

The government has set aside $612 millionfor atrust to help the provinces and territories provide the patient wait-time guarantees.

And it has allocated$400 million in new funding for the Canada Health Infoway, an organization that is working with the provinces and territories to improve the electronic delivery of health records.

Pilot projects

During the election campaign, the government initially promised wait-time guarantees in five priority areas — cancer, heart, diagnostic imaging, joint replacements and sight restoration.

The idea was that patients forced to wait overly long periods of time for specific medical care would be able to go to other jurisdictions or locationswithin the provinces or territories to get treatment.

In the budget, the government also promised $30 million over three years for pilot projects on establishing wait-time guarantees.

Four pilot projects aimed at improving wait times for medical care have been announced so far.

Three are designed to test guarantees for prenatal and diabetes care in a few First Nations communities, while the fourth is a pediatric pilot project designed to monitor wait times for children across the country in need of surgery.

With files from the Canadian Press