Canada's health-care system is facing some very real challenges, and has been for some time, from underfunding and those who would like to see more privatization.
With the defeat of the Harper Government just over a year ago, there was hope among supporters of Medicare that a new Liberal government in Ottawa would mean a restoration of adequate funding for health care.
A central part of that would be the return of a comprehensive Health Accord to establish funding commitments and targets, and reversing the previous government's unilateral cuts to federal transfer funding.
As we start 2017, however, that early optimism is increasingly difficult to maintain.
Just as 2016 was drawing to a close, the provinces and territories met with the federal government to hammer out a new formula for stable and predictable health care funding. Both sides came to the meetings with key demands.
That early optimism is increasingly difficult to maintain.
Ottawa wanted to see spending on home care and mental health services, while maintaining the proposed Harper cuts in the form of reduced increases in federal transfers. The provinces and territories wanted larger annual increases in the transfers from the federal government. When a deal could not be reached, the talks collapsed on December 19.
Hopes that the provinces would hold strong and force Ottawa's hand to improve its offer began to crumble three days later, when New Brunswick broke ranks and signed a unilateral deal modeled on the federal government's last offer. Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador soon followed suit. Each province also won a "me-too clause" stipulating that if the other 10 provinces and territories got a better deal, their province would too.
With solidarity between the provinces seemingly breaking down, however, getting a better deal will be increasingly difficult. This should worry all Canadians, and the lack of provincial solidarity poses a major challenge for all supporters of a strong health care system in this country.
As one of those supporters of public health care, it is up to me and others who believe in a strong Medicare system to raise our voices and support the provinces that have not cut individual side deals to fight for something better.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, Feb. 22, 2016. (Photo: chris Wattie/Reuters)
There is a reason that Medicare is seen as a basic human right in Canada. It represents our mutual commitment to support one-another through good times and bad, and our belief in equality and equity of opportunity. We cannot be truly equal as a society if some of us have less access to a public service such as health care.
It is vital, then, that supporters of a strong, public and well-funded health-care system speak out in 2017 to bolster the solidarity of the provinces as negotiations continue with the federal government.
This effort will be especially important in the next few months as we enter budget season in Ottawa.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau will no doubt cry poor as those discussions begin, citing an end-of-the-year report that the federal government is unlikely to see budget surpluses again until the 2050s -- much later than was thought a year or two ago.
There can be no doubt that Ottawa needs to be careful with how it spends taxpayers' money. This, however, is an issue of priorities and how the government intends to support health in this country.
We cannot be truly equal as a society if some of us have less access to a public service such as health care.
Supporters of a public health-care system need to make sure that the federal government knows that we stand with the provinces in wanting a new Health Accord. It is up to each of us to advocate for stronger health-care system, one that includes support and services for mental health and that provides high-quality care for every Canadian, regardless of their income level or where they live.
We, the residents and voters, must let Morneau know that by tempting the most cash-strapped provinces into signing side deals, he has not done anything to damage the solidarity of the wider community of health-care advocates.
There is nothing wrong with the federal government's call for more home care and mental health services. Both are important, but cannot come at the price of restoring the damage done to health care overall thanks to the chronic underfunding of the previous government.
Progress on other health care priorities, such as a national universal pharmacare program, will be limited until the question of a Health Accord and secure finding for all provincial health care systems is settled.
We cannot let the breakdown in discussions last month further delay much-needed improvements to health care in this country. This is why we must act now.
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