OTTAWA — The Pallister government hopes — this time — the provinces will keep a united front and convince the federal Liberals to boost health transfers.
"The feds need to decide if they want to be a full partner in funding health care, or is their share going to decline," Manitoba Finance Minister Scott Fielding said Monday, near Parliament Hill.
Hours after unveiling his economic forecast, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau welcomed his provincial counterparts for a two-day meeting.
Morneau has avoided setting out any priorities, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked him in a mandate letter to keep up generous social spending while reducing the debt, and to "preserve fiscal firepower" in case of a recession.
Fielding noted the premiers came to a consensus this month on asking Ottawa for more health-care cash, as well as helping shore up the oil patch.
"We feel united on these two particular items that we’re going to make a focal point for this," Fielding told the Free Press.
The premiers want Ottawa to switch up the formula it uses for stabilization, a little-known program that gives cash to provinces that face sudden economic hits, given difficulties in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland. The program runs separately from equalization payments.
However, Fielding said, that’s secondary to health transfers.
"Ensuring long-term health-care partnerships and funding is really the top priority for Manitobans," he said.
In 2016, the Liberals put out a decade-long health accord that held to the former Harper government’s slowing of transfers, despite an aging population.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister was the last to sign onto the proposal. The provinces demanded more money, but gradually caved, after the Liberals sweetened the deal by putting up extra funding for mental health and home care.
Earlier this month, all 13 premiers asked Trudeau to raise the current annual increase to 5.2 per cent from three per cent.
Pallister has been among the most vocal, arguing the current formula isn’t sustainable, even when provinces try closing hospital emergency rooms to find efficiencies.
Trudeau has tasked deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland and Health Minister Patty Hajdu with "renewing our health agreements with the provinces."
But instead of even mentioning the health transfers, Trudeau listed four priorities: access to family doctors, national mental-health standards, palliative care, and pharmacare.
Hajdu told the Free Press last week she was "certainly open to hearing" what provinces have to say.
"These are negotiations, by the very nature of them. That means that we look for ways that we reach our shared goals, which I would hope is that all Canadians have access to excellent care, no matter where they live," Hajdu said Dec. 10.
She added she wants to see how provincial health ministers have spent their mental health and home care cash top-up, when she meets with them in February or March.
Updated on Monday, December 16, 2019 at 7:51 PM CST: Fixes typo in headline