Health minister vows to do more than just 'open the federal wallet'

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott says she has an obligation to do more than "simply open up the federal wallet" as she negotiates a new health care accord with the provinces.

Jane Philpott tells university audience that federal government should do more to lower drug prices

Health Minister Jane Philpott responds to a question in the House of Commons Monday. Philpott outlined her position on health transfers to the provinces before a Queen's University audience later in the day. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott says she has an obligation to do more than "simply open up the federal wallet," as she negotiates a new health care accord with the provinces.

Philpott is under pressure from the provinces and territories to increase the annual general health transfer. Next year, the annual increase in that federal envelope of money will drop to 3 per cent from 6 per cent.

Some provinces want any new health care funding to go into that general fund rather than into specific, targeted programs such as home care.

Philpott announced Tuesday that she will be meeting her provincial counterparts in Toronto on Oct. 18.

But Philpott pushed back against that idea during a speech at Queen's University in Kingston Monday evening.

"Some insist that the problem facing Canadian medicare is a lack of money, and they decry the fact that the future growth rate of the Canada Health Transfer will be brought more in line with the growth rate of our economy," she told the audience of medical students and health policy experts.

Philpott said the facts do not support the idea that what the health system needs most is more cash.

"I'm convinced that we have an obligation as a government of Canada, for example, to do more than simply open up the federal wallet."

She said the federal government is committed to giving the provinces more money, but "we must ensure that new money doesn't simply inflate health systems, but helps to put health care on the road to long-term sustainablilty."

Philpott said that means driving innovation and making the health care system better.

Better mental health care, e-health records

In a 40-minute speech, Philpott highlighted a number of areas she believes need improvement, from home care and mental health, to e-health records.

"Patients with severe mental illness often face long waits to get access to specialists. Others who require counseling or therapy may have private insurance coverage, but most have to pay out-of-pocket, or more often, try to manage without," Philpott said.

Some provinces, such as Quebec, often argue that since they deliver health care, they know best how to spend the money.

But Philpott argued that the federal government has a stake in it too.

"If we don't have a say in how new funds are to be spent, then signing up to increased spending would amount to assuming an open-ended liability," the health minister said.

Lowering cost of drugs

Philpott also spoke about how she wants to lower the price of prescription drugs through Health Canada's role in reviewing new drugs in Canada.

"The review process for drugs in this country is indifferent to whether these new drugs being reviewed are any better than what is already on the market," she said. "So the result is that many of the new therapies introduced each year offer sometimes little benefit over what's currently available, but often come at significantly greater cost."

There is eventually a review of a drug's cost effectiveness, but Philpott said it often happens months after the drug is released into the market, and by then drug plans are already paying for it.

Philpott said she wants to see the regulatory system do a better job in determining whether new drugs offer a better standard of care and increased value for money.