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Why Canada Needs a Palliative Care Strategy

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It's been said that Canadians are not very good at talking about dying. It is the kind of discussion that doesn't take place in the media or with friends. And yet, I have found that in hosting town hall and community meetings on palliative care, Canadians have a lot to say on the matter. People are concerned about the lack of support for quality end-of-life care. They understand the importance of having community and family-based options to help loved ones through the final journey. They also get that such investments make a lot of sense especially when dealing with an aging population.

We have all lost a family member or loved one. How those loved ones were treated in their final days -- whether through a holistic palliative service or while waiting for a bed in an emergency unit -- profoundly impacts how we approach this issue.

This past spring the Parliament of Canada supported the New Democrat Motion 456 on establishing a pan-Canadian palliative care strategy. Across this country, palliative care is being delivered in a patchwork manner. Some regions have wonderful palliative services while other regions make do with volunteerism and fragmented service options. Fragmented services actually cost the system a great deal more money. The differences in quality, cost and emotional/physical outcomes between a functioning palliative system and the status quo are enormous.

Consider this, 1 per cent of the population uses up 30 per cent of the nation's health budget. Many of these are people who are elderly and facing serious illnesses. If for no other reason than growing health costs, provincial, territorial and federal officials need to look at the models that have proven to be better at delivering services while costing the system less. Patients who are identified as palliative early in their treatment are less likely to be making emergency trips to hospitals with their loved ones while hospital staff scramble to find bed space. The costs of fragmented or duplicated services in dealing with patients facing life threatening illnesses can be an enormous burden to the patient, the family and the system.

This is why, as New Democrats we are pushing forward with the common sense solution that is staring us in the face. Palliative care is about patient and family centered care. When the services are delivered in a coherent process it can be much more cost-effective as well as emotionally and spiritually balanced.
This past spring, all parties showed their goodwill by voting for the New Democratic initiative. But goodwill needs to be transformed into policy. Palliative services are delivered at the provincial and territorial level but there is a role for the federal government in working with its provincial partners on establishing best practises and considering what models work well. Programs that exist in certain urban or rural regions are easily replicable in other regions. What is needed is a co-ordinated discussion especially as our population ages and health costs rise.

Our parliamentary initiative is about putting the federal government back into the discussion on health, not as an overlord but as a partner seeking solutions. It is about reversing the direction set by the Conservative government when they walked on the Health Accord earlier this year and when they abandoned (in 2007) the National Secretariat on Palliative End of Life Care.

The New Democrats will continue to work with organizations on the ground on fleshing out the important steps needed to make a pan-Canadian palliative strategy a reality. All of us need to continue pushing parliamentarians to follow through to make this strategy a reality.

That is why the hard work begins now. It is up to us, Canadians and civil society organizations, to work with while holding the government's feet to the fire to make sure it follows through on the NDP's motion for improving palliative services.

I am asking for your help to continue working with us. Join the discussion on palliative care - with family, neighbours and above all, with your elected politicians.

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