Groups to premiers: Force Harper on new Health Accord

Groups lobbying in St. John’s this week say provinces will lose $36 billion in federal health care funding over next decade if premiers don’t pressure the Harper Government to renegotiate a new Health Accord, and that the lack of Medicare support could push Canada to a two-tiered system.

As Canada’s premiers arrive in St. John’s for their annual Council of the Federation summer conference, pro-medicare groups from across the country, unions and other activists have descended on the capital city to sound the alarm on what they say is an orchestrated dismantling of the country’s public health care system.

On Monday evening the local Council of Canadians (Council) chapter hosted a peaceful demonstration in Bannerman Park to bring attention to Canada’s expired Health Accord and what they say will amount to $36 billion in lost funding to provinces for health care over the next 10 years if a new accord isn’t negotiated.

Council Health Care Campaigner Michael Butler estimates that between March 2014—when the federal-provincial agreement expired—and March 2015, Newfoundland and Labrador lost $22.4 million in equalization payments through the Canada health transfer.

Over the coming decade the Council, unions and other organizations have estimated the cost of the expired Health Accord and the Harper Government’s move to a per capita model for health care funding will cost this province roughly $500 million, or $952 per resident.

Under the new per capita health transfer scheme, each province will receive an amount that corresponds to its population, Butler explained, “so things like income levels, demographics, urbanization, and varying capacities of each province to collect revenue is completely ignored.

“And in a place like Newfoundland, where there are challenges to health care just based on the demographics and geography, it has a real effect. So the changing formula inevitably leads to an increase in inequality in health care across the province.”

Under the Health Accord Canada guaranteed health care funding to the provinces at a 6 per cent escalator, and with average inflation at 3 per cent the federal funding already “wasn’t enough money but it was keeping up with the demands of the healthcare system,” National Coordinator for the Canadian Health Coalition Melissa Newitt told The Independent on Tuesday.

Newitt is also in St. John’s this week to lobby the premiers to push for a new health accord.

“Since the Health Accord has ended, [health care funding] is provided per capita but it’s also tied to [federal] GDP,” she explained. “So if the Canadian economy tanks, that means there’s less money for healthcare.

 So the changing formula inevitably leads to an increase in inequality in health care across the province. — Michael Butler, Council of Canadians

“It’s very unCanadian — we’ve never seen that kind of funding arrangement in the past. And we also know per capita funding doesn’t make a lot of sense because there are different factors in providing health care in different regions of the country. And the point was never, ‘everybody gets this much money for healthcare’ — it’s, ‘everyone gets the same quality of healthcare,’” she added.

Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) N.L. President Wayne Lucas said he’s beside himself trying to figure out why the provincial government is using public-private partnerships to build new long-term care facilities in the province while at the same time remaining silent on the health care cuts from the federal government.

“Already in Newfoundland and Labrador this year we’ve lost $22.5 million and I haven’t heard a single word from the provincial government about jumping up and down and saying to the prime minister and to the federal Tories that we want our share of the equalization payments going into health care,” he said.

“What is this provincial government doing? Why haven’t they been sounding the alarm? Instead, I think they’ve got this phony [idea] of saying let’s give [health care] to the private sector and hopefully they might be able to fix this problem that we’ve got with underfunding — and at the same token knowing full well that the private sector can’t do it as effectively and efficiently as what the public sector can do.”

Canada moving to a two-tiered health care system?

When former Saskatchewan Premier and subsequent inaugural federal NDP leader Tommy Douglas ushered in Canada’s era of public healthcare in the early 1960s, Canadians were afforded access to publicly-funded medically necessary health care based on need, not how much money they had.

Despite the system’s imperfections, like the absence of coverage for pharmaceuticals and long wait times in some places, advocates for a renewed Health Accord say Medicare is a big part of Canada’s national identity and should be improved upon rather than dismantled.

Butler said ushering in an era of privatized health care and a two-tiered system is “not building a better country or making choices that are grounded in kindness and decency and community, which is really what our public healthcare represents. It includes values of compassion and equality, generosity, and it binds us together.

“You talk about what makes us Canadians compared to Americans — it’s our health care. I think now more than ever we need those genuine public solutions that protect and strengthen Medicare.”

Butler and Newitt said in light of the evidence that privatized health care costs more, results in lower quality care and perpetuates inequality, the only explanation for a government’s willingness to facilitate a transition to two-tiered care is that the decision is ideological.

“We can’t lose sight of the fact that what the Harper Government is engineering is a fractured and divided healthcare system and it’s undermining the health of our own people,” Butler said.

He called the move to ignore the expiration of the Health Accord a “classic Harper Government” move, “where something is popular with the public and what do you do? You structurally engineer its demise by underfunding it,” said Butler. “Cut the legs out from beneath it so that people start going to other alternatives. But they’re not real alternatives.

“I don’t think those are Canadian values and I don’t think they’re things the people of Newfoundland and Labrador or anywhere in Canada for that matter believe is right. That’s not building a better country or making choices that are grounded in kindness and decency and community, which is really what our public health care represents.

Newitt called Harper’s refusal to negotiate a new Health Accord a “complete lack of leadership” and a strategy that is “part of a right-wing agenda to undermine public services.

“We see it in all kinds of services,” she continued. “You starve the sector, you say, ‘It’s no longer possible to provide the quality of care that you want in public health care — we have to privatize, it’s the only way.’”

Butler, who participated in another demonstration Wednesday evening in St. John’s to send a message to the premiers, said all Canadians “have a right” to universal and quality public health care. “And in my view too many people worked too hard and too long for Medicare to slip away. We need to send a clear message to the premiers to say that this is the elephant in the room [at this week’s premiers’ summit in St. John’s].”

Newitt said since the federal government has failed to renegotiate with the provinces, it’s up to the premiers to demand a new Health Accord.

“The federal government has a visioning responsibility in the healthcare system and they’ve just walked away from that. So there isn’t a plan to improve healthcare in Canada. In many ways if they’re not being held to account then these things start to fall through the cracks,” she said.

“So that’s why we’re all here in St. John’s, to really make a fuss to make sure that the premiers and the federal government know that we’re aware that things are supposed to be done in a much better way, and that we’re going to be voting for a federal government that shares those values.”

Lucas called Canada’s health care system “the glue that binds our country together,” and said Canadians are respected worldwide because of the country’s Medicare system.

 Newfoundland and Labrador has more to lose than any other province or any other territory across the country. — Wayne Lucas, CUPE

Last Friday provincial NDP leader Earle McCurdy sent a letter to Paul Davis, asking the premier to lead his counterparts in a collective call for the federal government to renegotiate a new Health Accord.

“With our rapidly aging and largely rural population, a per capita [health transfer] disproportionately affects Newfoundland and Labrador. The losses that we will incur have been estimated at as high as $491 million over 10 years,” McCurdy wrote.

“Significant cuts to the Canada Health Transfer leave us vulnerable in the face of rising healthcare costs, and put pressure on provinces and territories to cut some services and privatize others. I am concerned that this may be your plan, given your recent overture to privatize long-term care facilities despite overwhelming evidence that doing so will deliver lower quality care at a higher cost.”

On Tuesday The Independent requested a response from Davis to McCurdy’s letter but the premier was unavailable for comment before the time of publication.

Lucas said in light of the well-known fact Newfoundland and Labrador’s population is aging, he wants to know why Davis isn’t organizing with the premiers in the same fashion as civil liberty groups are and calling on the federal government to negotiate a new Health Accord.

“Newfoundland and Labrador has more to lose than any other province or any other territory across the country,” he said.

“We’ve got an aging population and we can’t afford to be short-changed by a half billion dollars in 10 years. We’re in a crisis mode. That’s their excuse for going down the road with public-private partnerships.”

The Health Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador and Canadian Health Coalition will host a rally Thursday at Noon at Bannerman Park in St. John’s calling on the premiers to push for a new Health Accord. Click here for more information.

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