Ottawa open to long-term health accord with provinces: source

The federal government is signalling a willingness to sign a longer-term health accord with the provinces in a shift that could help end the standoff in negotiations over transfer payments for health care.

Trudeau government willing to extend promise of health funding if key conditions met

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leads Canada's premiers to a news conference at the first ministers' meeting in Vancouver, in March. They will all meet again Friday. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The federal government is signaling a willingness to sign a longer-term health accord with the provinces in a shift that could help end the standoff in negotiations over transfer payments for health care.

That means Ottawa may be willing to extend its offer of additional health care spending beyond the $3 billion over four years now on the table, but a senior federal official told CBC News that would only happen if the provinces commit to investing the additional money in mental health and home care.

The move comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to host the premiers Friday for a first ministers' meeting dedicated to a national climate change strategy.

In September, the premiers sent Trudeau a letter demanding a meeting on health care in advance of the upcoming talks on climate change. That didn't happen, but Trudeau did agree to discuss health care with the premiers at a working dinner this Friday — after the climate change meeting has ended.

More talks later this month

That discussion is a partial victory for the premiers, but the federal source cautions that the health talks likely won't be settled there. The source, who spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity, instead pointed to a finance ministers' meeting tentatively set for Dec. 19 that could be expanded to include the health ministers.

The rate at which health transfers increase is set to decline next year to three per cent a year, from six per cent. But the Liberals have been promising to spend $3 billion over four years on home care and have said that better mental health care is a priority.

The first ministers at the table in Vancouver. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Health Minister Jane Philpott has been pushing her provincial counterparts to sign a new health accord by the end of this year. But the provinces and territories have been frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations and lack of flexibility from the federal government

Their main objections are that the base three per cent increase in health transfers is too low and that the money earmarked for home care is short-term.

The federal source wouldn't say if Ottawa was willing to increase the base transfer beyond the three per cent. But the official did say the Liberal government was willing to extend the $3 billion spending promise beyond four years if the provinces agreed to the federal conditions.

Talks have not gone well

One high-level provincial source, who also spoke on the condition they were not named, suggested that "annualizing" the extra home care funding could be the basis of a deal with provinces who don't want to commit to expanded home care and mental health services only to see the additional federal money dry up in a few years.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, centre, listens to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the first ministers' meeting in Vancouver in March. Former Manitoba premier Greg Selinger, right, won't be at the table this time — he was defeated by Conservative Brian Pallister in April. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

But other provinces — notably Quebec — have expressed frustration with Ottawa's insistence on tying additional money to specific programs.

To this point, the health accord talks have not gone well. In October, health ministers clashed during a day of tense negotiations. Since then, Newfoundland and Labrador has publicly complained that talks have "gone silent."

Officials from some provinces have complained that it has been difficult to get the federal government to engage on health care or any issue not connected to the prime minister's climate change agenda.

About the Author

David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.