Premier says health-funding limbo ‘disappointing’
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OTTAWA — Premier Heather Stefanson said the federal government has missed a major opportunity to begin shifting health care out of crisis mode, by refusing to indicate when it will increase funding for hospitals and doctors.
“I just find it really disappointing. We just need to get to the table,” she told the Free Press at the end of a two-day meeting of Canada’s premiers in Victoria. “I don’t think we’re that far off of alignment.”
The Trudeau government has said it will negotiate more generous health transfers to the provinces, but has refused to hold a meeting on the issue — something the 13 premiers and territorial leaders first asked for in the fall of 2020.
The premiers have demanded the federal government increase its share of health funding to 35 per cent, from the current 22 per cent. Associations that represent nurses and doctors say the formula has failed to keep up with costs and made it difficult to provide quality care to Canadians.
“If they’re not acknowledging and recognizing the crisis in communities across the country, they’re asleep at the switch,” summit host B.C. Premier John Horgan said at a closing news conference.
This week, Liberal ministers chastised the premiers for not using the power they received years ago to raise taxes to pay for health care.
They said their government is reluctant to hand over cash that isn’t tied to specific outcomes, given auditors general have raised questions about whether Ontario and Alberta used federal COVID-19 funding for its stated purpose.
In past years, some provinces have diverted federal health stipends to other uses, such as tax cuts and rebates they gave to voters ahead of an election cycle.
The Manitoba NDP raised a similar concern Tuesday, urging Ottawa to tie any increased cash to specific health-care targets that are publicly reported.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew accused the PCs of “just taking advantage of a popular issue, and then they’re going to come back and use that money for their own pet projects.”
Halfway through the summit, the former head of Manitoba’s civil service lifted the curtain on past health funding negotiations. David McLaughlin told the news site Politico that former premier Brian Pallister had tried to convince premiers to peg their requests for health care cash to specific projects.
McLaughlin claimed that was a non-starter for Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
On Tuesday, Stefanson said Manitoba has been rolling out its priorities in part to show Ottawa how it would use more health funding, including reducing diagnostic and surgical backlogs, and on personal care homes.
“We’ve already started to indicate what our priorities are; I think they’re pretty much in alignment with where the feds want to go,” said Stefanson.
“I hope they will put whatever it is aside, and just come to the table,” she said, striking a more conciliatory tone than her peers.
Horgan, for example, said tying funding to specific projects smacked of a “serf relationship” instead of respecting provinces as having equal importance as Ottawa.
“The federal government is creating a problem that doesn’t really exist,” he said.
Horgan said the collaborative spirit Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had with the premiers throughout the pandemic has been replaced with “quibbling.”
In a joint statement Tuesday, the premiers promised to harmonize labour codes and regulations so nurses and other professionals can more easily work across Canada.
Stefanson acknowledged that improving labour mobility could mean higher wages in Manitoba, to avoid nurses and others from getting poached.
“We will be looking at some sort of an increase,” said Stefanson.
“If we want to attract people to Manitoba, we need to make sure that we’re competitive with other provinces,” she said, adding it’s not just about wages, but affordability and “competitive taxation.”
The premiers want more of a voice in reforms to welfare and job training, to reflect provincial needs.
Their final statement said Ottawa could help to expand hydroelectricity and other energy exports to alleviate global supply shortages.
Stefanson wants the federal government to help ensure the Prairies fill gaps in a projected food shortage caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We as a country, and we as a province, are looking at ways… to help those countries that need our help.”