Public health care facing its greatest threat

Failure to renew the Canada Health Accord threatens us all. This province needs to join others in speaking out.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour represents some 65,000 unionized women and men who live and work in every single community in this vast province of ours. Every single one of them, along with the 500,000 people who make up our population, is a user in some way, shape or form, of our public health care system. Ask any one of them how important an issue it is, and you will be hard pressed to find a soul who says it’s not.

Yet, something very serious is about to happen to our health care system in Canada; something that – if we are not vigilant, and prepared to challenge – could potentially lead to the destruction of this very social program. It will mean that those who can afford it will have one standard of health care, and those less fortunate will have to accept a lower standard. And as Tommy Douglas, Canada’s father of Medicare, would say: any free country that talks about the democratic process and allows this type of double standard, is denying the basic principles of that democracy.

A legacy of commitment to public healthcare

For the past 10 years, Newfoundland and Labrador, and indeed all provinces and territories in Canada, have benefited from Canada’s Health Accord. Signed by the first ministers in 2004, the Health Accord provided stable funding and guaranteed national standards. This historic accord expired March 31. Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided unilaterally not to renew it. We all should be concerned.

At the heart of the Accord was a re-commitment to Canada’s Health Act and its requirements: public administration, universal access, comprehensive coverage, accessibility without extra charges or discrimination, and portability across provinces.

The Accord increased health care funding to the provinces and territories from the federal government by six per cent each year. As a result the federal government’s cash share of provincial health spending increased to 20 per cent. While this is an improvement from the 10 per cent it provided before the first health accord in 1998, it pales in comparison to the 50 per cent the federal government covered when Medicare first began.

In return for the stable funding, goals were set to address wait times, catastrophic drug coverage, better access to diagnostic medical equipment, home care and primary health care. All of these are important issues for all Canadians.

From security to uncertainty

Thanks to the Accord, Canadians are now able to get more timely treatment for a number of important procedures. In other areas such home care, access to drugs and primary care, more needs to be done. Canadians continue to support improvements in health care as a top priority. In brief, the need for a renewed and strengthened Health Accord remains. This will only happen if we have strong committed leaders.

The reality is Prime Minister Stephen Harper has decided without any consultation not to renew the Health Accord. Without notice or discussion, the federal government announced a “take it or leave it” health care funding plan in December 2011.

Harper’s plan will keep federal health care funding on its current track until 2017, at which point major cuts will kick in. Instead of increasing at six per cent a year, the health transfer will be tied to economic growth or three per cent to four per cent. Also, no national goals or standards are to be enforced.

According to the provinces’ own research, the end of the Health Accord will result in a $36 billion cut over 10 years to public health care across Canada. For Newfoundland and Labrador the cut will be $491 million. This is not all; equalization payments to the provinces and territories for health care will be linked to population size rather than needs. This is expected to cost the less wealthy provinces an additional $16.5 billion over five years.

In addition, under the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union, Harper has agreed to extend patent protection for prescription drugs, which will keep less costly generics off the shelf for several more years. This will result in an additional $1.5 billion in drug costs.

Overwhelmingly Canadians want to see the public health care system strengthened. We need a national pharmaceutical strategy, an aboriginal health strategy and a seniors’ health care plan. All of which requires leadership, not abandonment.

The sad fact is Harper’s refusal to negotiate a 2014 Health Accord could result in more for-profit services and the end of universal health care. Canadians don’t want to see one health system for the wealthy and another, cheaper system for the rest of us. It looks like we will have to fight to win this battle.

Time for this province to take a stand

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians know what is at stake and the premier has an occasion to spell it out. So far, he and his government have been deafeningly silent. We are asking Premier Marshall to take a stand for public Medicare; to be a strong advocate on our behalf. We are asking him to join with the other provincial and territorial leaders and call the federal government back to the intergovernmental table, and that they work together to ensure universal access to quality care.

Canadians of all political stripes support the core values of public medicare and expect strong federal and provincial leadership to uphold it. Why are the provinces silent on this issue? We need to call upon the premiers to get the Harper government back to the intergovernmental table in order to work together for the necessary changes to ensure universal access to quality care for generations to come.

And we need to do whatever we can to save our universal, public health care system, and keep working with our community partners to strengthen it – not tear it apart.

Or, as Tommy Douglas would say: “We can’t stand still. We can either go back or we can go forward. The choice we make today will decide the future of Medicare in Canada”.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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