No running away from health care

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Wed Jun 22 2011.    Ted Ball

The next provincial election will be fought over health-care reform — despite the fact that our politicians desperately want to avoid the issue.

Look what’s happening: the Liberals hammered Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and claimed that if he were elected, he would “cut health-care spending.” In the media spins that followed, we were told that a Hudak government would cut $3 billion from our health-care system.

Hudak responded with a high-profile public commitment to increase health-care spending by another $6.1 billion — despite evidence that at least 30 per cent of current spending is wasted. So the candidate who wants to “fight waste in government” now promises to increase spending in the one part of the public sector that has the greatest inefficiencies and waste. Welcome to the world of health-care politics.

My guess is that Hudak’s advisers believe that by exploding the Liberal myth that “a Tory government would slash health-care programs,” they have killed off health care as a potential election issue. I don’t think so. I think he has made health care the issue — because that is what Ontarians are worried about.

Indeed, the health-care debate is heating up. We have had report after report demanding change in the delivery system. Just before Christmas, former prime minister Brian Mulroney and former senator Michael Kirby said Canadians need to have an “adult discussion” about the future of the medicare system — and suggested we need to find innovative ways to get more private money into the system.

Using similar language, former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge, in an April report for the C.D. Howe Institute, said it is “now time for an adult conversation about the sustainability of our health-care system.”

Corporate Canada has jumped into the emerging debate through the Canadian Alliance for Sustainable Healthcare sponsored by the Conference Board of Canada. Conference Board CEO Anne Golden says, “We must change the way we think about health care.”

That sounds to me like the status quo is going to change. So what are we doing to get ready for change?

The provincial government recently appointed economist Don Drummond to head a commission on reforming the delivery of public services. Solutions to the harsh financial realities Ontario is facing are expected to be rolled out in the spring 2012 budget.

Voters understand this. They know “big changes” are coming in the next few years.

So the political strategists who are hoping that health care will simply go away as an election issue are going to be disappointed. The public isn’t interested in bidding wars — with their tax money — over which party will spend more on health care. This election — whether the parties like it or not — will be about which party Ontarians trust to reinvent and redesign our health-care delivery system.

In a recent poll, 88 per cent said “health” was their No. 1 public policy concern. Through personal experience, Ontarians experience the good and the bad of our health-care system — and they want to know what the three leaders would do to “fix” it, while preserving its best features.

What was encouraging about the release of the Tories’ election platform last month was their commitment to introduce what they say will be “a series of patient-centred reforms that make the patient the focus of our health-care system.” Good stuff! Hudak has also set the pace with his pledge to “give home-care users more dignity, more flexibility and more say in determining where they acquire these services.”

Ontarians also want to know about the health reforms envisaged by Premier Dalton McGuinty and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

While traditional political wisdom is that it would be politically risky for the party leaders to say anything of substance about their health-care agenda, the fact is this issue isn’t going away.

Indeed, I think it could become the Oct. 6 ballot question.

Ted Ball is a former chief-of-staff to two ministers of health in the Bill Davis government and also served as a speech writer to NDP and Liberal health ministers.

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