Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced $60 million Thursday to keep an Arctic health-care program going for another two years.

On a visit to Yellowknife on his annual Arctic tour, Harper said many northerners face unique health-care challenges because of their distance from doctors and other health-care workers and their higher rates of certain diseases.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives a thumbs up from a 1942 Douglas DC-3 in Yellowknife when he visits Buffalo Airways, the focus of a TV series called Ice Pilots, during his annual Arctic tour. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The $60 million will extend a program called the Territorial Health System Sustainability Initiative, which was launched six years ago to improve health care across the North. The program will now carry on until 2014.

The money is targeted at specific problems, including gaps in the health-care workforce and chronic health problems.

"This is about working with the territories to ensure northern families can get the medical attention they need near their homes, thereby reducing the costs, time and travel of being treated further south," Harper said.

Part of northern strategic plan

Until Thursday, much of Harper's northern visit focused on the military and economic development, but he says health care is a key part of the northern strategic plan.

"Health services are critical to social development."

So far, the three territorial governments have put the federal program to use in a variety of ways.

"In covering medical travel costs, expansion of midwifery services," said Nunavut Premier Eva Arrviak. "And it has allowed us to hire [a] full-time pediatrician to provide expert direction for the care of our sick children."

Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski says his territory will spend some of the new money on designing a mental health plan and offering palliative care in smaller communities.

But many northerners say more needs to be done.

"Remote communities need nurses and doctor visits … not just once a month," said Jackie Jacobson, a member of the Northwest Territories legislature for Nunakput.

Doctor recruitment key, MLA says

He wants the money spent on recruitment of heath-care professionals to give them a more permanent presence in the North.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq accompanied Harper to Yellowknife. He made the funding announcement at Stanton Territorial Hospital, which has spent some of its federal money on expanding its kidney dialysis program.

This was the third day of Harper's sixth annual summer tour of the Arctic. The trip was delayed by about 24 hours because of the plane crash in Resolute, Nunavut, which killed 12 of the 15 people on board.

After visiting Resolute, where he met community members and first responders to talk about the crash, Harper moved on to a gold mine near Baker Lake in Nunavut to highlight northern economic activity.

After Yellowknife, the prime minister flies to the Yukon capital of Whitehorse on Friday.

On Saturday afternoon, Harper plans to be in Toronto for the state funeral of NDP leader Jack Layton.

With files from The Canadian Press