Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Monday that ongoing federal-provincial talks on the Canada Health Transfer (CHT) are going well — and there could be a summit between the prime minister and the premiers in the coming days to finalize an increase to the Canada Health Transfer.
Speaking to reporters in Hamilton ahead of a Liberal cabinet retreat this week, LeBlanc said he’s been working the phones, talking to premiers and senior provincial officials as Ottawa looks to secure an agreement to increase the federal-provincial CHT transfer with conditions attached.
The provinces have been demanding a multi-billion dollar cash injection to stand up 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 systemic change to a system that faces a multitude of challenges — in primary care, mental health, long-term care, virtual care and data collection.
LeBlanc ‘optimistic’ about health-care deal
“There’s been a lot of progress over the weekend,” LeBlanc said. “I’m optimistic.”
LeBlanc also suggested the deal that’s in the works could guarantee a certain level of funding for years to come.
“This is part of a process that will take us, we believe, to an important agreement that will improve the health-care system for the long term for Canadians,” he said.
LeBlanc said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will meet with his provincial counterparts only when some of the finer points of the deal have been negotiated.
The premiers have been demanding a face-to-face meeting with Trudeau for months.
“At the right moment, as the prime minister has always said, he’ll sit down with his fellow first ministers,” LeBlanc said.
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.
‘We all serve the same people,’ says Duclos
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has had a testy relationship with his provincial counterparts.
During a November meeting in B.C., Duclos walked out of health-care talks, saying the provinces were being unreasonable about Ottawa’s insistence that there be certain conditions attached to any new health-care cash.
He said the provincial health ministers received “marching orders from their premiers not to make further progress,” while also accusing them of being too focused on cash over results.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the cabinet retreat, Duclos said Monday 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,” he 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.
Trudeau and his ministers have convened here in Hamilton — an industrial city of some 785,000 people an hour west of Toronto — to discuss health care and other politically sensitive issues that might emerge when Parliament resumes sitting next week after the winter break.
A small group of protesters gathered outside the Hamilton conference centre where the cabinet was meeting, carrying signs with expletives denouncing Trudeau for his government’s actions during the pandemic crisis.
Economy also top of mind for Liberals
The economy is also top of mind for the cabinet as inflation continues to drive up the cost of living — an issue that dominates the political message of Trudeau’s main opponent, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.
Poilievre has blamed inflation on high government spending, while the governing Liberals say it’s a global phenomenon driven by the pandemic, supply chain disruptions and the ongoing war in Ukraine.
To address affordability, the government temporarily hiked the GST rebate and the federal housing benefit for renters. The cabinet could decide to push ahead with more supports when the Commons returns for its first sitting of 2023.
Carlene Variyan, associate vice-president at Summa Strategies and a former senior staffer in several Liberal ministers’ offices, said that if more measures are coming, they’ll be similar to what has already been offered.
“I think we know what the playbook is from this government on measures to support Canadians during times of economic downturn,” she said.
“It’s always going to be policies that are very focused on workers and delivering direct support to families, rather than trickle-down measures.”
NDP MP wants robust response to health-care crisis
Also up for discussion at the cabinet retreat is the Liberals’ supply-and-confidence agreement with the NDP, now almost a year old.
In exchange for New Democrats supporting the government on confidence votes between now and 2025, the Liberal government has agreed to spend more on social programs.
At the NDP’s urging, the government has started to enact a national dental care program for children.
The deal also calls for the creation of “a universal national pharmacare program” by year’s end.
NDP MP Matthew Green, who represents Hamilton in the Commons, said the list of challenges facing Canada is “long” but not one of them is “more acute” than “our national crisis of public health care.”
In a letter to Trudeau on Monday, Green said “it’s clear that health care is collapsing across the country” and calls for a robust response from the federal government.
He said Trudeau must enforce the Canada Health Act and ensure “equal access to care for all, a prohibition on charging patients for insured care, a ban on extra billing and preferential access.”
The NDP has been critical of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s plan to send more surgeries to privately run clinics to clear a backlog for procedures like hip and knee replacements.
The NDP has said such a plan is a slippery slope to a two-tier health-care system. The Ontario PCs have defended the move as a prudent approach that will relieve a severely strained hospital system.
Asked about Ontario’s plan, LeBlanc said Ottawa isn’t responsible for health-care delivery — but the federal government will insist provinces adhere to the Canada Health Act.
The Canada Health Act requires universal access to publicly funded health services covered by provincial and territorial plans, and bans user charges and extra-billing.
As the Liberal government pushes ahead with its climate change agenda, which could disrupt the country’s natural resources sector, the Liberal-NDP supply-and-confidence agreement also calls for a “just transition” programme to help displaced workers find jobs in other industries.
Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has said legislation to help workers in the oil and gas sector move into green energy jobs will be landing sometime this year.