Published January 25, 2023

Trudeau, premiers expected to meet in February to move health-care talks along

Provincial and federal governments have been jockeying for a new deal for months
Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH)

By Mia Rabson in Hamilton

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and premiers are to meet in Ottawa in two weeks to work on a new health-care deal.

Trudeau said Wednesday he issued an invitation for the premiers to join him in the capital on Feb. 7, but he warned that Canadians shouldn't expect a deal to get done that day.

"It will be a good moment for us to gather, but we're not going to be signing deals on that particular moment," he said. 

"It'll be about starting the very direct hard work of the bilateral arrangements that will happen with every province, while at the same time moving forward with a frame around data, health information and results that I think every Canadian wants to see."

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said that he is hopeful a deal can be hammered out before governments table their budgets this spring, saying the ambition is to "quickly conclude these agreements" soon after the Feb. 7 talks, which he called a "working meeting."

"This will be a detailed conversation where the government of Canada will put before the premiers what we think are detailed and significant proposals that answer so many of the common priorities that provinces and territories have been discussing with our government over the last number of months," he said.

LeBlanc added in French that he does not envision a scenario in which there are any "fundamental disagreements."

The prime minister announced the planned meeting during a news conference Wednesday morning in Hamilton, where the Liberal cabinet was finishing a three-day retreat ahead of the return of Parliament next week.

Provincial and federal governments have been jockeying for a new deal for months, and the issue has been a key part of the cabinet's discussions this week.

The premiers have been signalling a desire to meet with Trudeau to discuss their demands that Ottawa increase its share of health-care spending from 22 per cent to 35 per cent.

They appeared to finally take matters into their own hands. A spokesman for British Columbia Premier David Eby told The Canadian Press on Tuesday that premiers would be in Ottawa Feb. 12 and 13 for a meeting, and Trudeau was welcome to join them.

Trudeau has now issued an invitation to the premiers to come five days earlier. Ontario Premier Doug Ford immediately said he would be there.

"We have a lot to discuss, including making sure the federal government properly funds the health care people rely on," he said on Twitter Wednesday morning. "When Team Canada works together, there's nothing we can't do."

Trudeau said Wednesday that funding will be part of the discussions, and Ottawa is going to put an "appropriate" amount of money on the table. He did not specify how much.

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre wouldn't say whether he supported the premiers' call for more health-care money.

Instead, he said that when it comes to improving the country's health-care system, he would focus on priorities that include shortening wait times and working with provinces to speed up credential recognition for immigrants.

Bloc Québécois health critic Luc Thériault said in a French statement that the party is thrilled to see Trudeau will "finally" sit down with his provincial counterparts, saying it has been 28 months since premiers asked for such a meeting.

He described the party's desired deal as one that would ensure funding has a substantial increase, is consistent and is offered "without conditions." 

Canada's health-care system is strained to the breaking point following three years of COVID-19 and amid a growing shortage of health-care workers. Trudeau said Canadians have long prided themselves on the country's universal public health-care system.

"But what Canadians are experiencing right now is simply not living up to that promise or pride," he said. "Too many people don't have access to a family doctor or nurse practitioner. Wait times in emergency rooms across the country, particularly in rural areas, have become dangerously long."

He also pointed to the strain on health-care workers, many of whom are "on the verge of burnout."

Trudeau and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos have said that any new money will be tied to a requirement that provinces show how it will be used to improve patient care.

Specifically, Ottawa wants commitments to increase access to family doctors, end the long backlogs for surgery, improve mental-health care, address the health issues of an aging population and overhaul health-care data systems, including digital medical records.

"We’ll obviously maintain an appropriate degree of discretion as to how exactly that support will be provided to them," Duclos said.

He said health ministers acknowledge "the same responsibility that we have, which is to serve the same people with the same dollars, coming from the same pockets, and the same objectives." He added that their jobs haven't been easy, but they are clear on their objectives.

"Their shared priorities over the last year are very revealing. They are strong, they are anchored in reality and they are ambitious," Duclos said. "So we look forward to building on that at the next meeting at the first ministers level so that thereafter we can do it as quickly as possible and in the right way."

In November, a health ministers' meeting ended in turmoil when provinces refused to accept any new funding deal that had strings attached. 

But progress has been made since the holidays, and both Ontario and Quebec have indicated a willingness to give Ottawa what it wants — at least when it comes to data and medical record technology.

Ottawa transferred $45.2 billion to provinces for health care for the current fiscal year and currently expects that amount to increase to $49.4 billion in 2023-24. Under the existing agreement, the transfers increase by a minimum of three per cent a year, or more under higher economic growth.

Collectively, the provinces spend more than one-third of their budgets on health care.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday that despite economic uncertainty, Ottawa knows Canadians expect all governments to find a way to protect and improve Canada's cherished public health-care system.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2022.

— With files from Stephanie Taylor.

Banner image - file photo - Barrie 360

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