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Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter talks to reporters Thursday in Halifax, where provincial health ministers are gathering. Dexter says the provinces bear too much of the cost of Canadian health care. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

A call for higher taxes to pay for expanded health care was dismissed Thursday by the province hosting a meeting of health ministers under pressure to control spending.

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter rejected a national coalition's call for tax increases to strengthen the system and ensure stable funding. The provinces are bearing too much of the overall cost of health care, Dexter said.

Provincial and territorial health ministers say the rate of growth in health-care spending is not sustainable. But as governments grapple with pressure to reduce deficits, the public is becoming anxious about the loss of health-care services.

Before the ministers gathered for their closed meetings in Halifax, a crowd in neighbouring New Brunswick rallied at the legislature to protest against cuts to rural health care. 

Nova Scotia Health Minister Maureen MacDonald, who is chairing the meeting of ministers, said the health-care system needs to reflect a changing demographic — a growing population of elderly people.

"The old model of providing health care is no longer a model that meets their needs," she said.

The provinces want Ottawa to promise more long-term, predictable funding for health.

But federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq says she wonders what Canadians got for the billions injected into the system since a federal-provincial health accord was signed almost 10 years ago.

"With the amount of money we're investing in health care, Canadians want to know … how is this making Canadians healthier?" she said.

The accord guaranteed annual funding increases of six per cent.

Earlier Thursday, a coalition of medicare advocates said the federal government should expand health-care programs by increasing taxes.

Calls for broader system

Maude Barlow, of the Council of Canadians, told a news conference in Halifax that health-care coverage should be broadened to include pharmacare, continuing care and dental care.

Barlow also said Ottawa should commit to a 10-year health transfer plan with the provinces that would see the six per cent annual increase continue.

"At the moment, the Harper government is only committed to 2016, so we are very concerned that they have no intention of carrying it beyond that," Barlow said.

She said the Canada Health Act must also be enforced to stop private health-care services from eroding the system.

Elisabeth Ballermann, of the Canadian Health Professionals Secretariat, told the news conference that health care can be extended by reversing cuts to some personal and corporate taxes.

The health ministers will discuss how to reform and pay for health care after the current health-care accord expires. Ottawa is providing $27 billion to the provinces this fiscal year for health care. That amount is slated to rise six per cent a year for the next four years.

Advocates of prevention

For many in the health-care community, prevention is key to keeping costs down — a message underscored by patients and staff at a Toronto foot-care clinic.

Diabetes patients, who can lose limbs to poor circulation and gangrene, come to the clinic for sensitivity and circulation tests.

"It's a panic button that goes off in your head," says Rosemarie Smith, making an extra visit to the clinic on Thursday, just to be sure her feet are OK.

Simple tests now to test the sensation in a foot can prevent expensive, life-threatening problems later, says chiropodist Meghan Hoult.

Treatment of a foot ulcer caused by diabetes can cost $30,000 to $60,000, she said. An amputation below the knee can cost $50,000.

Advocates promote prevention programs as a good investment.

"When we're talking about preventing these issues, we're talking not about saving their limbs, but saving their lives," Hoult said.

With files from The Canadian Press