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Canadians warn of healthcare cuts as government weighs shift in spending
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Leaders of all the Canadian provinces and territories continue meetings in Victoria today where they’re discussing the future of the country’s public healthcare system. This follows the Finance Minister's announcement in December of a new federal funding package. Many are concerned that the new deal could mean sweeping changes to the healthcare system in the near future. FSRN’s Aaron Lakoff reports.
In Canada, funding for healthcare comes from the federal government, who hands it out to each province to administer under their own jurisdiction.
Federal finance minister Jim Flaherty’s budget proposal includes a 6% increase in federal cash transfers to the provinces until 2016, but then after that, the government plans to tie healthcare funding to the country’s GDP.
Samir Shaheen-Hussein is a pediatric doctor in Montreal. He opposes the proposal, arguing that healthcare shoudln't be dependent on the growth of a capitalist economy.
“People are going to get sick, preventative programs are going to continue to need to be put in place - that doesn’t change whether the economy in the country or in a given province is expanding at a favorable rate or not. So I think the danger here clearly is that tying the two risks underfunding healthcare over the next several years, and the federal government has proposed a minimum of 3% of an increase that they are going to continue for the budgets in subsequent years, but that is drastically not adequate for what is necessary.”
Many of the premiers -- the leaders of Canada's provinces and territories -- are concerned with the government’s hands-off attitude with the federal money. Prime-minister Stephen Harper did not attend the Victoria Premiers summit. The absence of Canada’s head of state is a notable departure from previous years.
According to a recent report issued by Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, a reduction in federal cash transfers over the next decade will shift the funding burden to the provinces, meaning that they will either have to raise provincial taxes or cut their own healthcare budgets in order to make ends meet.
Michele Boisclair is the vice-president of the Fédération Interprofessionelle de la Santé, a union representing more than 60 000 healthcare professionals in Quebec.
“Between 2000 and 2008, the reduction of the income taxes was 94 billion dollars that we didn’t have. With that 94 billion dollars, if we would have had it, the deficit would have been zero in 2012, or we could have made the choice of having all the medication paid 100% for everybody. That is not the choice our goverment took.”
Leaders of some provinces have also expressed concern that the Harper government is no longer enforcing the Canada Health Act, a law in place since 1984 which sets limitations on how provinces can spend the federal health transfers. On paper, the law sets strict guidelines regulating the establishment of for-profit healthcare. However, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has called the new budget a “take it or leave it” deal with few directives, and which could lead to the establishment of private clinics and hospitals across the country. In recent years, the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Quebec have seen the opening of private clinics
Despite pushing for healthcare to be put into the free-market, New Democratic Party member of Parliament Libby Davies says that most Canadians still strongly believe in a public system. FSRN spoke with Davies, who is also the Parliamentary healthcare critic, on the phone from inside the Victoria summit.
“So there's absolutely no question that every single poll that is done in Canada, usually at the top of the poll of Canadian's concerns is healthcare. I mean, Medicare in this country represents an incredibly deep value of how we see this country. And Stephen Harper knows this, so what he's doing is diametrically opposed to strong public opinion.”
Long waiting lists for operations and Emergency Rooms have often been Canadians' main complaint about the state of public medicare. Some provincial governments say the solution is private clinics. Ahead of the premiers summit in Victoria, Saskatchewan leader Brad Wall pledged that he wanted no one in his province to wait more than 3 months for a surgery, and hinted at the creation of more private clinics to meet this goal. Following this week's healthcare summit, Prime-Minister Harper said he hoped the premiers could quote “put the funding issue aside”, while the premiers emerged unanimously urging Harper to have a debate on the issue.
Aaron Lakoff, FSRN, Montreal.