Justin Trudeau says Ottawa will pay more for health care. Premiers demand to know when

OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised provincial premiers that his federal government will shoulder a greater share of the cost of health care for Canadians.

But Trudeau didn’t say when, how — and more importantly by how much — he would spend boost the federal share, and the premiers did not win a major $28-billion annual hike they demanded.

The premiers’ reactions ranged from bitter “disappointment” to “cautious optimism” at what was the first federal concession in more than a decade that Ottawa should raise its direct spending on health care on an ongoing basis — an area that is a provincial responsibility. Right now, Ottawa sends $42 billion a year directly to provinces to spend however they see fit on their health system.

Trudeau’s promise that his government would cover the full cost of buying and shipping COVID-19 vaccines to provinces, would set up a national vaccine safety database to track the deployment of vaccines, and would spend more on data-sharing, long-term care and pharmacare didn’t take the sting out of the fact that Trudeau gave no firm answer to their demand for more health dollars with no strings attached.

Premier Doug Ford in a release said while he was glad Trudeau will foot the bill for vaccine purchases, “the most critical issue before us today remains unaddressed.”

Ford said the premiers were unanimous in their proposal that would “ensure Ottawa once again pays its fair share of health-care funding in Canada. The prime minister did not accept this offer and no alternative was presented to the premiers to address the long-standing and growing health-care funding gap.”

Trudeau blamed the uncertainty that the pandemic has cast over the economy. He said however that helping provinces through the immediate crisis remains “job number one.”

“I recognize that this pandemic has exacerbated and highlighted the long-standing challenges faced by health-care systems across the provinces and territories and that the federal government will be there to step up its contributions,” Trudeau told reporters.

“But we know that we need to do that in a way that’s right for the coming years and the coming decades and right now there is a lack of certainty on what our economic situation and even our health situation will look like in three months let alone in three years.”

Quebec Premier François Legault, who chairs the Council of the Federation, said all leaders were “very disappointed” in the outcome.

Citing the possibility of a federal election next year, Legault said he will seek support among the Opposition parties in Ottawa after Trudeau “refused” to discuss provincial demands for more permanent health-care funding.

Legault said Trudeau also turned down an offer to meet again with premiers in January or February, because the prime minister believes it was “premature.”

“Provinces and territories form a united coalition that will fight to the end so that the federal government does its fair share to fund health care,” Legeault told reporters after the meeting.

Asked whether he is planning to campaign on the issue during an upcoming federal election, Legault demurred, stating in French that it’s “too early to say that.”

Still, the Quebec premier left no doubt he will do what he can to press Trudeau to agree to provincial demands, which Legault said should come “with no conditions.”

“I think the pressure will be very strong on Mr. Trudeau because … health is an important priority for all Canadians,” he said in French.

Canadian Medical Association president Dr. Ann Collins called it a “missed opportunity” for all governments to address “pressing” issues facing the health-care system.

“Every day, health-care workers are collaborating to care for Canadians. We are asking our federal and provincial and territorial leaders to do the same for the well-being of our country.”

The CMA called for the next federal budget “to do more than just deliver on the government’s current commitments” like funding for long-term care, but to lay out “next steps on collaborating on ensuring long-term, sustained health-care funding.”

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said he was “cautiously optimistic” about Trudeau’s admission that Ottawa should pay more.



He said he made clear on the virtual meeting “I’m not opposed to targeted funding.” If Ottawa wants to tie its dollars to funding for long-term care or towards a pharmacare program “I’m fine with that,” he said.

What McNeil does not want is the federal government to divide and conquer the provinces by negotiating separate bilateral agreements, which is how the most recent long-term-funding increases have been reached, saying it should be a “national” approach.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe was “disappointed” Ottawa didn’t take the provinces’ “fair offer” to increase the federal share of health-care costs but he welcomed Trudeau’s “acknowledgment” that Ottawa can “do more” on health care.

The provinces and territories want Ottawa to increase its annual transfers by $28 billion, so that the federal government funds 35 per cent of total health-care costs across the country.

Calling that request “reasonable” and “attainable,” Moe said he hopes the prime minister returns to the table in the coming months to discuss it.

“It’s one that the federal government can afford,” said Moe, saying it would provide generational stability for the health-care system.

“If you look back historically… about every 15 to 25 years there is a time to re-evaluate how the federal government is participating in that program,” Moe said, referring to the Canada Health Transfer that totalled about $42 billion this year.

“That’s what we are asking for today, is that fiscal recalibration… of the federal government’s participation in delivering health care across this nation,” Moe said.

Trudeau called the meeting “very productive” and that he looks forward to further talks with premiers.

But the prime minister repeated his refrain that the federal government has spent eight out of every 10 dollars that governments have provided to keep people safe in the pandemic.

He reassured Canadians that the imminent arrival of vaccines was the “good news we all needed to hear” and dismissed fears that U.S. President Donald Trump might withhold a shipment destined for Canada that is transiting through Kentucky this weekend.

“I have no concerns about interference of shipments of vaccines to Canada,” Trudeau said.

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