January 24th, 2017

Collaboration key to health talks

By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on December 28, 2016.

Adversarial approach not getting the job done

The united front shown by the provinces and territories in health-funding talks with the federal government began crumbling just before the Christmas weekend.

When Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador reached separate agreements with Ottawa on Friday, that meant three provinces had chosen to end the standoff at the negotiating table. On Thursday, New Brunswick reached its own bilateral deal with with the feds.

Reports say the money that will go to the three Maritime provinces isn’t much different than what Ottawa had offered during last week’s talks, before federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau pulled the offer from the table after the provincial ministers refused to budge on their demands.

The federal government had already sweetened the pot with an offer of $11 billion over 10 years for home care and mental health, along with $544 million over five years for prescription drug and “innovation” initiatives. That came on top of a 3.5 per cent boost in annual health transfers, an improvement over original plans to reduce the annual increase to three per cent from six per cent.

The provinces and territories were calling for a health transfer increase of 5.2 per cent annually, claiming that what Ottawa was offering just wasn’t a good deal for the provinces. The feds weren’t prepared to hand over that much cash, and also wanted to include guarantees that funding would go toward federal priorities.

Besides the amount of money, the provinces also took exception to what they saw as the federal government’s heavy-handed approach.

“It’s just an example of a federal government that says, ‘Here’s the solution and if you don’t like it, that’s too bad – it’s take it or leave it. For me, for an issue of this importance, it’s ridiculous,” said B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong.

When the provinces refused to budge, the feds played hardball. Morneau had warned before the start of the talks that if a deal wasn’t reached, funding would revert back to the reduced health transfer increase of three per cent Ottawa had announced earlier.

Apparently some of the provinces blinked. After the deal with New Brunswick was announced, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said she and Morneau were in discussions with several other provinces – four or five more – regarding bilateral deals.

Following New Brunswick’s agreement with the feds, B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake said B.C. would not negotiate a side deal with Ottawa. But Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said he could understand why provinces would choose to make their own agreements.

On Friday, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard accused Ottawa of a “divide and conquer” approach which he called “deplorable.”

Some have questioned the federal government’s approach to reaching a new health funding agreement, while some have suggested the provinces are in the wrong for expecting health money with no strings attached. And some felt both sides share the blame in the failed talks. An editorial in the Hamilton Spectator called it a “partisan chess game” in which “both failed to act in the best interests of Canadians.”

At the end of the day, Canadians need stable funding for a health-care system they rely on. Regardless how a new funding agreement is reached, the result needs to ensure the health-care system is able to do what it needs to do. Surely our elected leaders can use their political skills to collaborate for the good of the Canadians they represent.

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