Trudeau will host premiers Feb. 7 to hammer out health-care funding deal

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that he will host a first ministers' meeting in Ottawa on Feb. 7 as his government looks to finalize a deal on health-care funding with the provinces.

Ottawa has said it wants its investment to go beyond short-term fixes, deliver systemic change

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will host Canada's premiers next month in Ottawa, where they will try and hammer out the final details of a new funding deal for health care. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that he will host a first ministers' meeting in Ottawa on Feb. 7 as his government looks to finalize a deal on health-care funding with the provinces.

Trudeau also signalled there likely will be separate bilateral deals with each province and territory to address the health issues that matter most to them.

The federal government and the provinces have been in protracted negotiations for months over an increase to the Canada Health Transfer (CHT).

The premiers have been demanding a face-to-face meeting with Trudeau to press him for a multibillion-dollar increase to the funding.

WATCH | Feds 'prepared to invest' in health care: Dominic LeBlanc

Feds heading into health-care funding talks 'prepared to invest': Dominic LeBlanc

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"We're prepared to invest additional resources, conscious of the fiscal situation of the government," Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc told Power & Politics on Wednesday.

The federal government has said Trudeau would not meet with his provincial counterparts until officials had negotiated some of the finer points of a deal.

"Let's be clear — providing money is certainly part of the solution. But funding alone won't solve the issues we're seeing. Canadians need to see improvements, better results and outcomes," Trudeau said Wednesday at an event at the McMaster Automotive Resource Centre in Hamilton, Ont.

Trudeau said while Canadians are rightly proud of the medicare system there's no question it needs some support.

In recent months, some emergency rooms have been shuttered because of a staffing crunch, a labour shortage that has compromised the quality of care in some jurisdictions. 

Trudeau's decision to hold a meeting with premiers signals a deal could soon be in hand — but there are still some sticking points that need to be resolved, said federal sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

The provinces have been demanding a big cash injection to support a system that has been undermined by COVID-19 and labour shortages.

Ottawa has said it wants its investment to go beyond short-term fixes to deliver lasting change to a system that faces a multitude of challenges — in primary care, mental health, long-term care, virtual care and data collection.

"There's so many things we need to do and we'll be doing them together," Trudeau said.

"We'll be rolling our sleeves and talking about what we're proposing for the path forward for health care in this country. We need to build a system that Canadians are going to be able to rely on to deliver results for them for years to come."

WATCH | Premiers want federal share of health-care funding bumped to 35 per cent

Premiers want federal share of health-care funding bumped up to 35 per cent

2 months ago
Duration 7:02
"We're asking for that bottom line funding for the Canada Health Transfer to increase up to 35 per cent because it allows for us as provinces and territories to decide what is the priority within our own jurisdictions," Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson told Power & Politics on Wednesday.

Trudeau said he's not expecting a final deal will materialize after a single meeting — "We won't be signing deals at that particular moment," he said — but the meeting is a chance to discuss some of the stumbling blocks and craft language on how provinces will share data with Ottawa.

The federal government is insisting that patient data be more widely shared. 

Ottawa wants this data so that it can better track health-care performance and outcomes. They also want data to shared more efficiently between primary doctors, pharmacists, specialists and the hospital system.

Trudeau also said there will be bilateral talks on the sidelines of the Feb. 7 summit, which will offer opportunities to craft province-specific deals.

Trudeau said every province has unique needs. B.C., for example, is asking for separate funding for community health — including home support and seniors care — and mental health and addiction. Other provinces, facing a severe shortage of family doctors in some places, are seized with the issue of primary care.

Asked about the specifics of the pending agreement, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Ottawa will keep what it's offering the provinces under wraps until the deal is done.

"Out of respect for the work that we need to do with the provinces, we'll obviously maintain an appropriate degree of discretion as to how exactly that support will be provided to them," Duclos told reporters at the cabinet retreat.

WATCH: Federal ministers welcome health care meeting with premiers

Federal ministers welcome health care meeting with premiers

2 months ago
Duration 1:10
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos say they are 'looking forward' to seeing premiers in Ottawa on Feb. 7th for a working meeting on health care.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc has been working the phones, speaking to premiers and senior government officials about a health deal. He said some provinces are "very enthusiastic about the idea of having flexible arrangements" through bilateral deals with Ottawa.

"The bilateral agreements will offer the flexibility to respond to the specific needs of each jurisdiction," he said.

Premiers looking for funding increase

To help stabilize the system, the premiers have been asking Ottawa to dramatically increase how much it spends each year on the CHT — the block of money sent by the federal government to the provinces and territories to fund health services.

The premiers want Ottawa to increase its share of health-care costs from the current 22 per cent to 35 per cent.

The federal Liberal government has said the 22 per cent figure doesn't reflect the whole funding picture.

In 1977, some tax points were transferred from Ottawa to the provinces, which allowed them to collect a larger share of all tax revenues to fund social programs like health care. Those tax points, Ottawa argues, should count for something.

News of a meeting follows positive comments from some cabinet ministers, who've told reporters at the federal cabinet retreat in Hamilton this week that there's been meaningful progress on a deal to prop up a faltering health-care system.

While Duclos has had a testy relationship with his provincial counterparts during these talks, he signalled this week that there's been a breakthrough.

The federal government has insisted that the provinces earmark any new funds for five priority areas: reducing surgery backlogs, enhancing primary care, expanding mental health services, fixing long-term care homes and "modernizing" the system through better virtual care and data-sharing between the provinces and Ottawa.

Seeking flexibility

Some provinces, notably Quebec, have balked at the federal conditions.

However, as public pressure mounts for politicians to act, some of that opposition has become much more muted.

Quebec Premier François Legault, for example, said last week he'd be willing to share health-care data with the federal government in exchange for more cash.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has said the issue for his province isn't Ottawa's proposed conditions but rather the dollar amount.

"That's the least of our issues. Do we want a little bit of flexibility? Yeah, and I think they're willing to do that," Ford said of the Liberal government.

Duclos said there's now much less tension between Ottawa and the provinces.

"There is significant goodwill. We all serve the same people for the same purposes from the same dollars coming from the same pockets. So, we are increasingly aligned," Duclos said. "I am hopeful we will get to an agreement quite soon."

He said all sides are cognizant of "the pain many of our loved ones go through" when navigating a system that has been hobbled by COVID-19.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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