Who will blink first on the healthcare crisis, Ottawa or the provinces? That’s the question following yet another unproductive provincial/territorial-federal meeting on the issue, where both sides dug in their heels and accused each other of political grandstanding.
Health care across the country continues to crumble, with worsening wait times and accessibility, and now the added strain of a new wave of COVID-19 during flu season.
But all the squabbling health ministers gathered in Vancouver this week could do was point fingers, hurl insults and play games.
They emerged after two days, not only without a deal, but also, somehow, further apart than before.
On one side, you have the provinces demanding Ottawa increase the federal share of health care transfers from the current 22 per cent, to 35 per cent.
Feds say, no blank cheque to provinces
Provincial ministers say they need the money to hire new doctors, nurses and staff burnt out by a system overwhelmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the other side, you have the federal government, unwilling to sign a blank cheque for an extra $28 billion-a-year in health care funding (on top of the $45 billion in cash and almost $20 billion in tax points already spent).
Federal ministers say they want the money to go to specific areas, like mental health and family medicine, with clear targets and reporting back from the provinces.
You’d think there’d be ground to negotiate. It’s not as if money is even an object at this point, with federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos signalling again that Ottawa would pony up at least some of the cash.
The issue simply boils down to power and control.
“They want an unconditional increase in the Canada health transfer sent to their health ministers,” Duclos huffed at one point, calling it the “old way of doing things.”
The federal Liberals do not want to sign an enormous blank cheque to the provinces and then stand back and watch those premiers make feel-good announcements about fixing the health care system without at least getting some political credit for solving the problem.
Provinces want more funding, without strings
The provinces don’t want strings on how they spend health care money because they consider it a service to be administered individually in every province. They fear if they let Ottawa set rules on how this money is used, it won’t be long before all the funding comes with micromanaging and intrusion from the Feds.
“To succeed in the future, to build the health care system we need, we need the federal government to increase its role and support of public health care and not – as has been happening for too, too long –diminish that role,” said B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, as he was wrapping up the unsuccessful meeting.
Voters, meanwhile, are increasingly angry, polls show. They are watching emergency rooms close, family doctors quit, and enduring unreliable 911 service and enormous ambulance wait times.
Health horror stories rack up
Horror stories continue to pile up, most recently from a Lower Mainland mother whose 11-year-old son had to wait 41 hours for an ambulance transfer after a suicide attempt.
That anger is being felt provincially, across the country, and nationally, in Ottawa. And still, nobody is willing to move outside their message box.
There are signs perhaps a national deal will never happen.
The premiers prepared their communique about a failed meeting well before this most recent conference was even over, infuriating the federal delegation. And Duclos’s staff quite literally packed up his podium and walked it out of the room just before what was supposed to be a closing joint press conference.
In the end, it’s the public that’s losing out due to the lack of a deal.
Meanwhile, the feds appear arrogant and paternalistic.
The provinces seem paranoid.
And, every day, the situation on the ground gets worse.