Coronavirus adds new importance to premiers' health care demands ahead of first ministers meeting

Just a few short months ago, the first ministers meeting was going to be dominated by regional tensions. Now, the meeting will start at least with discussions on two crises the country has been dealing with in 2020: coronavirus and the recent Indigenous-led rail blockades.

First ministers will discuss economic fallout from recent crises - but health care, transfers still big issues

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The number of Canadians with coronavirus continued to rise this week, with provinces reporting new cases almost every day, so when the prime minister meets with Canada's premiers this week coronavirus will be the first thing on the agenda. 

A draft of the agenda for the meeting seen by CBC News on Friday shows 25 minutes for a discussion on the coronavirus and 45 minutes for a separate health care discussion. 

Just a few short months ago, the first ministers meeting, or FMM as us nerds say, was going to be a meeting dominated by regional tensions. When the premiers all got together without the prime minister before Christmas, they were on the same page. They all supported asking the feds to change the fiscal stabilization program (to help Alberta) and they all supported each other in demanding more money from the feds for health care. 

One of those things will certainly be part of the discussion this week, another ... not so much.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau says support is coming for Canadians who have to be quarantined in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston)

The information I have suggests Alberta Premier Jason Kenney will not be getting the $2.4 billion he's asked for to help deal with the economic blow to his province's coffers when revenues sank thanks to the crash in oil prices. (He may not see that money in the federal budget either, but I'll save the potential fallout from that for another column.)

But the health care issue — well, that one will play a big role in Friday's talks.

Provinces already feel like they're asked to do too much with the money they get from the feds for health care. At their December meeting, the premiers urged the federal government for more money for health transfers, saying health care in Canada had reached a crisis point — and that was before the coronavirus outbreak. 

We know hospitals in Ontario, for example, are operating over capacity, plus the stuff needed to treat the coronavirus — ventilators for example — don't come cheap.

When I spoke with Health Minister Patty Hajdu this week she insisted that Ottawa is ready to help the provinces. 

"We are prepared to support provinces in measures that they identify as gaps," she said. "Whether it is personal protective equipment that they can't acquire on their own and that they have run out of, whether it is ventilators because they've seen an increase of severe cases, whether it is human resources that we need to mobilize at a federal level to support provinces and territories."

By mid-week Ottawa will have introduced a pre-budget package, including things like additional EI measures for people who can't work because of the virus and bulk buying of equipment provinces don't have and can't afford to go out and buy on their own. The U.K. is expected to do something similar early in the week. 

Canadian Premiers pose for a group photograph during a meeting of the Council of the Federation, which comprises all 13 provincial and territorial leaders, in Mississauga, Ont., on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Now, whether that's enough to help provinces with everything they need is another story. My expectation is their demand for more money for health transfers — one premiers have been making for years — won't be quieted with the introduction of such a package. 

Now that provinces across the country are battling the coronavirus, those health care talks will take on a new significance and that highlights something I wrote about earlier this year — how events out of their control have dominated the federal government's agenda.

First, a passenger plane shot down in Iran, then rail blockades and now coronavirus. The frequency and sheer impact of those events have put this government into one mode: reactionary. 

Other than medical assistance in dying legislation and trying to get NAFTA through Parliament, the Liberals have yet to shape or populate their domestic agenda. 

The budget, which will likely come at the very end of the month, provides an opportunity to try to change that. To lay out a fiscal plan that perhaps brings to light what their legislative plan actually is. 

But even then, coronavirus will have to factor in. If the economy (already grinding to a near-halt last quarter) is further impacted, revenues coming into federal coffers will be too. The big question — as the virus continues to spread around the world — is how big of an effect will it have here at home. 

This week, and later this month, we should get some answers. 

This is just one part of the Minority Report newsletter. In this week's issue, Éric Grenier looks at the changing dynamics of the Conservative leadership race and the Power Panel gives its take on the week ahead. You can read all of that by clicking here, or sign up for the newsletter here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox every Sunday.

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