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Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, centre, makes a campaign stop on Tuesday with former leadership rival Scott Brison, left, at Dalhousie Medical School in Halifax. ((CBC))

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion promised Tuesday to spend $1.32 billion on health care improvements if elected to government, vowing to create a catastrophic drug coverage plan and invest millions of dollars to boost the numbers of doctors and nurses.

The drug plan would help reduce financial burdens on families coping with debilitating and chronic illnesses, Dion said early Tuesday during a campaign appearance at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Flanked by star candidates Bob Rae and Scott Brison, Dion told the crowd that the $900-million plan would cover drug costs for people with serious illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and arthritis.

"When drug costs of an illness become too much for a family to manage, the federal government should be there to help," Dion said.

At another campaign stop later in Sherbrooke, Que., Dion also promised $420 million to help boost the number of health care professionals in the country.

The money would be used to increase capacity to train doctors, nurses and medical technicians. Dion said the new funding would speed up the process of getting them into the field through licensing and foreign credential measures.

Too many Canadians without drug coverage: Dion

Dion said the proposed Liberal drug plan would ensure all Canadians have access to badly needed drugs no matter where they live.

"Far too many Canadians have no drug coverage protection at all," he said. "This shouldn't happen in our Canada."

Nowhere is this more evident than in Atlantic Canada, where about 600,000 people have no drug coverage, Dion said.

Catastrophic drug coverage is not a new proposal — one or more parties have pitched the idea in every election campaign since 1997, the CBC's Don Newman said in an election analysis on Newsworld.

Dion said a Liberal government would work with its provincial and territorial counterparts to determine a minimum standard for federal coverage of catastrophic drug costs.

He said the Liberals would also compensate provinces already providing that level of coverage.

The drug coverage announcement comes a day after NDP Leader Jack Layton proposed a five-year, $1-billion investment to boost the number of doctors and nurses being trained in Canada, the CBC's Susan Bonner reported.

Liberals offer to offset medical students' debt

At his campaign stop in Sherbrooke, Dion outlined his so-called Doctors and Nurses Fund.

He said Canada's aging population means there needs to be a plan to ensure greater access to health-care professionals.

To help under-serviced communities, Dion says a Liberal government would forgive $10,000 per year of student debt for health professionals who agree to practice in the communities for at least five years.

Dion, who has reportedly faced criticism from within his own party for failing to deliver his message to Canadians during the campaign, also used the day's campaign events to defend his Green Shift carbon tax plan.

"It's a very simple idea; we'll cut your taxes, and we'll shift it to pollution," Dion said in Halifax while claiming the plan would result in a 10 per cent income tax cut for most Canadians.

Rae praises former rival as 'man of great vision'

The Liberal leader also lashed out at continued attacks on the plan by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, who has said the Green Shift would increase the cost of living and pull Canada into a recession.

"He speaks English better than me, but I speak the truth better than him in French and in English," Dion said.

In his first high-profile appearance during the campaign, Rae introduced his former rival to the crowd as "a man of great vision and a man of great determination" while referring to Harper as "Herbert Hoover in a blue sweater."

Hoover was the U.S. president in office at the start of the Great Depression in 1929 and is widely blamed for failing to act quickly to counter the economic crisis.

Rae and Brison's appearance at Tuesday's campaign event sparked much discussion among observers.

Liberal insiders have been complaining that the Dion tour hasn't been getting enough media attention, Newman said, and that Dion should be playing up the strengths of his team.

CBC's Susan Bonner said the Liberal campaign stressed on Tuesday that it was always part of their plan to include the party's star candidates in the leader's election campaign.

Michael Ignatieff is expected to join Dion later in the week, while other members of the team, including Martha Hall Findlay and Gerard Kennedy, are also likely to make appearances.

With files from the Canadian Press