Liberals will defend universal health care, Ignatieff says

NationalPost.com – Canada – Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff addresses supporters in Abbotsford, B.C. on Aug. 22, 2010.
Friday, Sept. 3, 2010.   Meagan Fitzpatrick, Postmedia News

Canadians would rather see their tax dollars spent on health care than “prisons and planes,”according to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who says his party is the one to trust to improve the health-care system and to keep it publicly funded.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is spending millions to expand jail sizes to accommodate a projected increase of prisoners as a result of new crime legislation, and millions on maintenance contracts for existing fighter jets and the acquisition of new ones to replace them.

Prisons and planes are not the priorities of Canadians, Mr. Ignatieff said Wednesday at a news conference in Baddeck, N.S., after the Liberal summer caucus meeting. They are more concerned about child care, post-secondary education for their children, retirement security and their health care, he said.

In an interview with Postmedia News that same day, Mr. Ignatieff elaborated on his views of the state of health care in Canada, how the system needs to be reformed and who should pay for it.

He agrees with those in the field who say the current system is not sustainable and outlined several specific areas where he says a Liberal government would focus its efforts to strengthen it.

“Sustainable on the present track? No, I think we’re going to have to take action together,” Mr. Ignatieff said. “Four years of this Conservative government, we’ve really done nothing substantial on health care.”

Preventing people from using the health-care system in the first place would be a main component of a Liberal government’s plan to alleviate the growing strain on it, Mr. Ignatieff said.

“More health, less health care — I just think that’s crucial,” Mr. Ignatieff said. “You’ve got to pull some demand out.”

Health prevention and promotion programs, and improving the health of aboriginal people would be part of that initiative. Aboriginal health is an area where “the federal government can and must act,” Mr. Ignatieff said, adding that some of the specific problems in that area are “a real shocker.”

To cut down on hospital costs, a national home-care strategy needs to be developed that would include tax credits for caregivers, he said.

Calling it “the next frontier,” and an emerging focus of debate, Mr. Ignatieff said prescription drug coverage is something he heard a lot of concern about from Canadians as he toured the country this summer. The question of how prescription drugs should be paid for is something the Liberal party is “looking actively at,” Mr. Ignatieff said.

Who should pay for health care — and how — are questions in a larger discussion about reforming Canada’s health-care system. The Canadian Medical Association, the group representing Canada’s doctors, recently released a report calling for a national debate about transforming the health-care system, and for the federal and provincial governments to start talking about the funding agreements that will expire in 2014.

Finding efficiencies within the existing system and adding more accountability to how health-care dollars are spent are becoming familiar refrains from the CMA, and ones Mr. Ignatieff agrees with. Pumping more money into the system and raising taxes to do it isn’t the way to go, Mr. Ignatieff said, adding he wants spending to be made more efficient.

Over the course of the tour, Mr. Ignatieff has emphasized where his party lies in the debate over public and private health care.

“I’m a very firm believer that we don’t want user fees,” he told Postmedia News. “We want universal, accessible, free-at-the-point-of-service health care, paid out of general revenue,” Mr. Ignatieff told Postmedia News. “That’s just bottom line. Otherwise we get two-tiered.”

On the health-care front in the next campaign, Mr. Ignatieff will attempt to portray the Conservatives as a party that is uninterested in improving health care and is leaving it to the provinces. He said there is a “philosophical difference”between how the two parties approach the health-care file, and going forward Canadians can expect to hear more from Mr. Ignatieff on that.

“What we have said passionately over and over again, is who do you trust here to defend universal health care?” he said.

The choice is between a party that wrote the Canada Health Act or a party that has criticized it, according to Mr. Ignatieff.

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