Canada’s Health Care Dilemma – Bruce Hyer MP

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THUNDER BAY – Popular speculation is that we may soon have a Federal election. Some Canadians are concerned that Stephen Harper may get a majority in the House of Commons and be able to run the country as he wishes, without checks or balances. One reason people are concerned is that our universal health care system might be severely compromised even more than it already is. In 1997, when he was Vice President of the National Citizen’s Coalition, Harper declared: “It is past time that the Federal government scrapped the Canada Health Act.”

Now, in addition to huge cuts to the federal share of health care funding under Paul Martin, Canada is feeling the pressure from an older population, the costly demands of high-tech medicine, and a national shortage of doctors, nurses, and other key health-care workers. Canadians haven’t forgotten the slashing that occurred in the 1990s, when enrolments at medical schools were frozen and acute care beds were closed. That led to hospital hallways crammed with patients and long waits at emergency departments. Today, almost five million Canadians don’t have a family physician.

Recent data from the OECD show that Canada is well behind countries like Sweden on the number of physicians and nurses per capita, on infant mortality, and on other health parameters. Sweden gets better outcomes on 9.2% of their GDP, compared to 10% in Canada, and a whopping 16% in the mostly-privatized US system (although the USA is alone among developed nations in not yet having a universal healthcare system).

The Conservative government, which will introduce its budget soon, will face pressure from Canadians to tackle the record national deficit, caused mainly by a reduction over years in the tax rate for large corporations from the original 36% (the same as the American rate) to our current 16.5% rate set by Harper’s budgets …budgets supported by Ignatieff’s Liberals.

When Tommy Douglas and Lester Pearson teamed up in a Liberal-NDP minority government in 1966 to create Medicare, the federal share of health care funding was 50%. In the early 1990’s, Paul Martin tightened the fiscal belt to deal with budget deficits, but did so by drastically cutting health care funding to the provinces. By the time former Saskatchewan NDP Premier Roy Romanow released his landmark report on fixing Medicare in 2002, Ottawa had slashed its share to about 16%. Romanow recommended an immediate infusion of federal dollars, to bring Ottawa’s share up to at least 25 per cent.

Romanow’s Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada found that most Canadians agreed on the following basic values:

• Every Canadian, even the poor, should have access to health care

• No Canadian should be bankrupted by the cost of necessary health care services

• Need should determine what medical services are covered by public health insurance

• Both federal and provincial governments must help restore the health care system

• New targeted funds should be established in key areas immediately

A six percent increase in the Federal share was negotiated with provinces in 2004. It will expire in 2014. The question then, and now, will be: Will we shift to a model more like in Sweden, where health care is both more effective and cheaper, or continue our slide toward the dysfunctional USA model, which costs far more, and covers far fewer of its citizens? A second question is: Who will pay for it? As I head back to the House of Commons and consider the upcoming 2011 federal budget, these questions will be on my mind.

But I’m interested in what you think: I hope to hear from you at bruce@brucehyer.ca

Bruce Hyer, MP