The truth about Harper and medicare

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Wed Apr 20 2011.   By Bob Hepburn, Editorial Page

Trust is a word that Stephen Harper is tossing around a lot in this federal election, especially when it comes to medicare.

The Conservative leader wants you to trust him when he suggests that he — not Michael Ignatieff or Jack Layton — is the true saviour of our universal health-care system. He wants you to trust him when he says preserving medicare is his No. 1 priority.

During a campaign stop Tuesday in Thunder Bay, Harper claimed that only a majority Tory government “can be trusted” to continue to invest heavily in health care. He went on to declare he is committed to “a universal public health-care system that is fully financed. That is this government’s No. 1 priority and that will be its position.”

Despite his professed new-found love of medicare, the truth is that Harper has done more to weaken and dismantle Canada’s public health-care system than any other politician since it was established in 1966.

Indeed, throughout his entire career as an elected politician and as president of a right-wing lobby group, Harper has worked openly against medicare.

The evidence is overwhelming and goes back almost two decades. Tellingly, Harper has said or done nothing to disavow or distance himself from any of it.

That includes the last two weeks when health care emerged as a major campaign issue. The topic arose after Ignatieff committed the Liberals to continuing annual 6 per cent increases in federal health transfers after the current health accord with the provinces expires in 2014.

Within hours of Ignatieff’s pledge, both Harper and Layton matched his promise.

While it’s easy to point fingers at Ignatieff for taking his sweet time to come out strongly for medicare, in reality it’s Harper who is one of medicare’s worst enemies.

Murray Dobbin, a researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives who has studied Harper since the mid-1990s, writes that “people need to know just what Harper is likely to do with medicare and what he has said in the past. People’s memories are short.”

To refresh those memories, here are some classic Harper’s moments:

In the 1990s as policy director of the Reform party, Harper argued that Ottawa should attach no strings to federal health funds, leaving the provinces wide open to impose user fees, extra billing or refuse to treat patients from other provinces.

Harper quit his job with Reform and soon rose to be president of the National Citizens Coalition. That’s a lobby group founded initially in 1967 by Colin Brown, a rich London-area insurance broker, to oppose medicare. As NCC president, Harper railed repeatedly against Ottawa, claiming Canada needed to “experiment” with “market reforms and private delivery options,” thinly veiled code words for for-profit private health care.

This week, Tim Naumetz, a veteran Ottawa reporter, dug up comments by Harper in 1999 while he was NCC boss in which he endorsed a proposal in a book by David Gratzer, a medical student, calling for a separate private health insurance system.

“Gratzer proposes a workable solution for the biggest public policy problem of the coming generation — our government-controlled health-care monopoly,” said Harper in quotes on the back cover of the book. “Our health care isn’t just sick, it’s killing people.”

In the infamous 2001 “firewall letter,” Harper and others urged Alberta premier Ralph Klein to take over complete control of health-care policy and to “fight in the courts” any move by Ottawa to impose penalties.

In 2001, he called the Romanow Commission on the Future of Health Care “not only useless, but dangerous.”

As prime minister, Harper has done nothing on the health-care file.

He has turned a blind eye as provinces allow more and more private health care. He has never met with the premiers as a group on the future of health care. Until two weeks ago when he suddenly promised to continue raising health transfers by 6 per cent, he had stood by silently while his finance minister, Jim Flaherty mused about reducing — not increasing — federal health transfer payments to the provinces. He shuffled off the parliamentary hearings on the health accord renewal to a powerless Senate committee.

Added to that is his self-serving claim that under his watch federal health transfers have risen to a record high. In fact, the increases are mandated under the 2004 health accord, which Harper had absolutely nothing to do with.

Harper says this election is about trust.

Knowing the truth about his record on medicare, is it okay to trust him?

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