Health Minister Jane Philpott is hitting back at premiers who are concerned about the Liberal pledge to stick with the former Harper government's health-care spending formula, saying that more money for cash-strapped provinces isn't the only solution.
"Three per cent is a reasonable escalator for next year," Philpott said of the planned hike to health transfer payments.
"Three per cent is actually significantly higher than the growth in health spending across the country, which averages anywhere from zero to two per cent."
Some provincial health ministers, including Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette, have said the increase isn't enough, as it does not keep pace with population growth and the needs of a rapidly aging population in some provinces.
Health-care spending has been constrained in recent years as most provinces have opted to rein in budget deficits left over from the last recession.
Barrette, who has been a thorn in the side of the federal government, objected to talk about further spending efficiencies.
"It is the trap that the federal government is pushing us into," he told reporters in Ottawa. "We're not talking about the real thing that comes first — funding."
Former finance minister Jim Flaherty unilaterally changed funding increases to either match the rate of GDP growth or three per cent a year — whichever is greater. That marked an end to the six-per-cent annual escalator implemented under the last Liberal government. (The funding change will take effect next year.)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tasked the Toronto-area health minister with penning a new health accord with the provinces, and many premiers are pushing hard for more funding as part of those negotiations.
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The federal government has said that it will pump more money into the system — including $3 billion for home care — but it wants to look for greater efficiencies, rather than rejigging the funding escalator set by Flaherty.
Premiers demand meeting with PM
As first reported by CBC News, premiers have sent a letter to the prime minister two weeks ago, demanding a first ministers meeting on health-care funding this fall, before they meet to discuss climate change.
The premiers said that if a meeting on health care is not possible by mid-December, they want Trudeau to commit to extending six-per-cent increases to health-care transfers for at least another year.
Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski, who is chair of the Council of the Federation, said Trudeau has yet to respond to the most recent letter. The prime minister had responded to an earlier letter from July, he said.
"The prime minister reiterated his support for the federal, provincial, territorial ministers' work on renewing a health-care accord," he told Rosemary Barton, host of CBC's Power & Politics, on Thursday evening.
Pasloski said he received the letter late yesterday. The premiers want talks about health care to be added to the agenda of the climate change meeting scheduled for late fall, he said.
"I think there's still an opportunity to ensure that this is an issue that can be brought forward and be a part of the agenda," he said. "Because it doesn't matter where you live in this country, health care remains a priority for all Canadians."
A first ministers' meeting would be the best way to address the diverse health care needs in different regions, Pasloski said.
"Because our situations are unique across the country, I think that's why we need to have that conversation about how exactly we do this. I think it's important to know that for the last four years, Canada's premiers have been working on innovation in health care."
Philpott said she understood why the premiers are anxious for more money in "tough economic times," but said she knew nothing about the letter, as it was not addressed to her.
She has committed to holding a meeting with provincial and territorial health ministers on Oct. 19, she said, and that will be a chance to discuss innovation in the health-care system.
"We know that there's much that can be done in health care that doesn't require spending more money," she said. "There's a lot of inefficiency, a lot of siloing, or fragmentation. Lots of experts, across the country, know that we can build more efficient systems. We're looking forward to innovation and building better models of care."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has also been critical of the government's plan to maintain Harper's health-care plan, saying Philpott is continuing a long-standing Liberal tendency of "dictating" to the provinces how to spend on health care.