By closing the Health Council of Canada, Stephen Harper is abandoning national medicare
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is abandoning the essential federal role in Canadian health care.
Apr 17 2013. By: Michael McBane
Health Ministers from across Canada were recently told by the Harper government that it will stop funding the Health Council of Canada and wants it “wound down” in order to save $6 million.
When the Harper government says it is time to wind down the Health Council of Canada, it is saying in effect, it is time to wind down national medicare. Let me explain.
The Health Council of Canada was formed in 2003, following the Romanow Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada, to provide accountability, oversight, planning and national coordination for our health care system. Its achievements to date include lowering wait times and encouraging innovation in the public health care system to ensure access to a continuum of services, in and out of hospital.
The federal role is to facilitate national approaches to health system issues and promote the pan-Canadian adoption of best practices and innovation. This is the glue that holds medicare together and keeps it responsive to the evolving needs of the Canadian people. Provinces and territories cannot perform this role. The vacuum in federal leadership will fragment the health care system into 14 separate systems operating independently from each other. This fragmentation undermines the core principles of the Canada Health Act, especially comprehensive coverage and portability between provinces and territories.
Lack of federal coordination and guardianship means that more and more Canadians will lack access to comparable health services in primary care, prescription drugs, home care, rehabilitation and longer-term care.
The Harper government’s decision to terminate the Health Council will put an end to pan-Canadian health outcomes, common standards across the country and comparable indicators. It also strikes a blow to accountability, transparency and evidence-based health care policy. The official line is: “Let the provinces experiment.” The implicit assumption is that Canada should not maintain national standards in health care or strive for national objectives. Canadians want and need the highest possible national standards.
National surveys consistently show that Canadians and the provincial and territorial governments want federal leadership in health care. Instead Harper is choosing to cut and run – cut the funding and then put distance between his government and universal health care. It is difficult to overstate the damage – to people and their public health care – of these cut-and-run policies. Those most at risk from this federal abdication of responsibility are the frail elderly.
The news that the government is shutting down the Health Council of Canada comes in the wake of a series of other major moves against national medicare by the Harper Conservatives.
First the Harper government derailed the national pharmaceutical strategy contained in the 2004 Health Accord. As the Health Council pointed out, the national pharmaceutical strategy was integral to the renewal and sustainability of the entire health care system. It is perverse for the Harper government to encourage excessive growth in pharmaceutical costs and abusive marketing practices, and then tell provinces, territories, employers and individual Canadians to pay the bills and deal with the fallout from unsafe and ineffective new prescription drugs.
Then the Harper government unilaterally announced major cuts to federal transfer payments for health as well as fundamental changes to equalization payments. The cumulative effect will be to take more than $60 billion out of health transfers and equalization payments in the decade following 2014. The heart of medicare, as designed by the Hall Commission in 1964, called for the federal government to negotiate high national standards and to establish an equalization formula to ensure all regions could meet those service standards.
Now the Harper government is saying when the 2004 Health Accord expires next year, it will not be renewed. Significant progress has been made as a result of the major re-investment by the federal government over the 10 years of the first accord – wait times are improving and more Canadians have access to primary care. The Harper government is saying there is no need to maintain the momentum, build on these gains, and negotiate a plan for the next 10 years. With Canada’s growing and aging population, federal leadership is needed more than ever. Yet the only action plan for seniors care the Harper government has is an elaborate one from the Finance Department to cut funding over many years.
There was a time when critics said the Harper government had a hidden agenda for health care. Harper does indeed have a health care agenda. But it’s not so hidden.
Canadians must now call on the provincial and territorial premiers to step into this leadership vacuum and do what they can to protect the vision of a national strategy for health care. The financial support of the Health Council of Canada must be maintained until such time as the federal government can be convinced to return to its essential leadership role, or until Canadians choose a new government.
Michael McBane is National Coordinator of the Canadian Health Coalition in Ottawa.
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