OTTAWA – Provincial health ministers from opposite ends of the country are less than enthused about flying to Ottawa for health-care talks next week, saying there’s nothing on the table yet that could break the stalemate over federal spending levels.
British Columbia’s Terry Lake said Tuesday that for now, he sees no reason to board a plane on the taxpayer’s dime in order to discuss the issue — at least not until he sees the federal government budge from its position.
“Until I get something a little more concrete, I really don’t feel the justification to be going all the way to Ottawa,” Lake said.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau is expected to invite the health ministers to next week’s talks with his provincial and territorial counterparts. But Lake and others aren’t sure they see the point.
At the other end of the country, Newfoundland and Labrador’s John Haggie said while he had yet to receive an invitation, there’s no guarantee he’d show up.
“We’ve heard the same thing at each meeting,” said Haggie, who added that his fellow health ministers have had about four group discussions with the feds on the matter over the last year — two by phone and two in person.
“I really don’t want to disrupt the end of the house sitting here to go all the way to Ottawa to hear exactly what I heard in October and last June. I can’t see the merit in that.”
There appears to be a gulf between the provinces and the Trudeau government in the negotiations surrounding federal health transfers.
With the annual six-per-cent increase in Ottawa’s transfers scheduled to fall to three per cent in April, the provinces and territories have warned they will soon be staring at significant holes in their upcoming budgets.
Ottawa is concerned transfer payments currently flow into the general revenue pools of the provinces and territories, which have responsibility under the Constitution for the delivery of health care services.
The federal government has said it would require an additional level of detail for any extra investment in order to be able to measure results.
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott admitted Tuesday that there’s still a lot of “back-and-forth dialogue” to be done before an agreement can be reached.
The funding feud is expected to dominate next week’s meetings between the country’s finance ministers and Morneau. Annie Donolo, Morneau’s spokeswoman, says the minister will notify the provinces and territories this week about next year’s transfer payment amounts.
On Tuesday, Ontario proposed a new 10-year federal funding plan that would see Ottawa’s health transfers increase by 5.2 per cent a year.
Premier Kathleen Wynne called the idea a starting point. In exchange, she said the provinces would commit to spend the money on priority areas agreed on with Ottawa, such as mental health and home-care services.
A three-per-cent annual increase “is not going to cut it,” Wynne said, especially when Ottawa provides only 23 per cent of the total amount spent on health care. She said there was a “fair bit of consensus that (5.2 per cent) was the kind of increase that we need to look at.”
Haggie said the 5.2 per cent proposal was discussed by the provinces earlier in the year, but the idea faded before re-appearing last week during the first ministers meeting.
He heard that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a “fairly definitive message” to the premiers at that meeting by insisting he wasn’t willing to budge from three per cent.
Without an agreement on more federal money for health care, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister refused to sign Trudeau’s pan-Canadian climate change framework.
On Tuesday, Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said fulfilling some of the obligations of a climate-change plan would be even more difficult for his province if it’s facing the prospect of being “short-changed” several billion dollars over a decade on health care.
“I would say we are at loggerheads now,” Goertzen said.
The last health accord expired in 2014 and, after refusing to renegotiate it, the previous Conservative government unilaterally declared that the six-per-cent escalator would end in 2017.
The federal Liberals have promised an additional $3 billion over four years, specifically for home care. They have also signalled a willingness to increase that sum.
Some provinces have suggested they could accept lower annual increases in health transfers if Ottawa agrees to finance a long-term health accord that targets improvements in home care, mental health services and innovation.
But B.C.’s health minister said there’s no point in further discussion if the federal pitch doesn’t change.
“I think the prudent thing to do — if you want to have a serious, long-term health accord — would be to roll over the six per cent for a year and have real, productive discussions about what a long-term health transfer … looks like,” said Lake, who also pointed to the growing health costs linked to Canada’s aging population.
— with files from Allison Jones in Toronto