Canadians suffer as governments bicker over health care funding

November 14 2022

“Our governments do not seem to understand the urgency of the health care crisis and are more focused on assigning blame rather than on taking action or working together. Canadians should be pressuring their politicians to cooperate. The Premiers cut short the most recent funding negotiations by choosing to continue the conflict with the federal government. Patients and health care workers are paying the price for these political games.”  — Bert Blundon, NUPGE President

Ottawa (14 Nov. 2022) — The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is deeply concerned about the disappointing ending of the first in-person meeting of the country’s health ministers since 2018. The meeting abruptly concluded with no meaningful progress on the issues facing our public health care system and with no new commitments by any of the participants. This included no new commitments on funding, information gathering and sharing, or otherwise strengthening our public health care system.

NUPGE represents over 100,000 health care workers and many are on the frontlines of the current crisis, suffering under massive workloads and increasingly impossible situations. Our members know that the health care system is buckling under the strain of years of underfunding related to austerity, decades of ignoring the consequences of an aging workforce, and the impact of the pandemic on workers. 

Increased federal funding on the table, but premiers choose blame game 

Before the health ministers’ meeting, the federal government stated that it would increase federal transfers if provinces and territories agreed to conditions: to use common key health indicators and to build a health data system. The premiers have been calling for an additional $28 billion in health transfers from the federal government. This would take the share of federal cash transfers under the Canada Health Transfer to 35% of health care costs, from the current 22%.

Unfortunately, the premiers demanded no conditions be applied to the increase in funding. They sent a press release, No progress achieved with the federal government, ending the negotiations and demanding a first ministers’ meeting between the premiers and the prime minister on health care funding. The result was that the health ministers’ meeting dissolved with no agreements or commitments.

The premiers seem to have chosen to forego an opportunity for immediate increases in federal health care funding, in order to be able to continue to lay the blame for the health care crisis on the federal government. A tactic they are heavily invested in, including running an extensive advertising campaign with this message. 

Stop playing politics with people’s lives

Our elected leaders need to understand the suffering and pain resulting from the crisis in our health care system. As the economy has opened up after the pandemic, virtually all levels of governments are showing surpluses (CBC news). Bloomberg, Global News, and the Globe and Mail respectively report that Ontario posted its first surplus in 14 yearsAlberta is forecasting a $13 billion surplus and the federal government had a $10 billion surplus in the first quarter. It should be noted that these numbers rose dramatically from previous forecasts. We are in a volatile economic situation, but these surpluses show that governments are not prioritizing health care funding even though the health care crisis is acute and growing. 

We now see the federal government responding to the premiers by sending out a Federal Statement on the Federal, Provincial, Territorial Health Ministers’ Meeting and by going on the attack. The federal government is saying that they did not agree with providing provinces and territories with funding without accountability. They criticized premiers for not increasing health care funding but for focusing on priorities like lowering taxes on the wealthy. Patients and health care workers are suffering as these political games continue. 

NUPGE urging govts. back to negotiations on health transfer increase, with accountability measures

Until governments come to an agreement and begin to take action there will be more damage to our public health care system. Decades of austerity have left the system severely underfunded and understaffed, which amplified the pandemic’s impact. The health care system needs an immediate infusion of added funding. However, NUPGE is sending the message that more funding alone is not sufficient to address the crisis.

Funding, without system reform, does not provide a solution to the health worker labour shortage and does not lead to implementing promised programs like universal pharmacare. By itself, increased funding will not address the problems in seniors’ care across Canada, nor will it significantly impact emergency room and surgical wait times. Similarly, having a health data system is essential, but the real work lies in the steps taken to deal with the gaps in the system that will be exposed by the data.

Most importantly, a large increase in funding to the provinces and territories, which is used by the premiers to fund an increase in private health care would actually cause great harm to our public health care system. NUPGE is very concerned that 2-tier health care supporters are using the current crisis in health care to expand for-profit health care in Canada. This is not what Canadians want and has even been rejected by the courts.

Action needed now

Action is needed to go along with any increased funding. Patients and health care workers are suffering because of the lack of action. The reforms that are needed must involve heath care workers and their representatives. Canadians rightly value our public health care system, but the ongoing inaction by governments has shaken this confidence.

Today, both workers and patients are suffering from the uncertainty and chaos we are seeing in public health care. There is more privatization and contracting-out of health care services than at any time in the recent past. The chaos in federal-provincial/territorial negotiations is mirrored by the chaos in our health care system. The political chaos has very real consequences for patients and workers. The impasse points to governments who are not committed to addressing the crisis in our public health care system. Canadians need to demand that their politicians take action to improve our public health care system and do this immediately.

Too much is at stake to allow politics to undermine our cherished health care system.