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Health ministers agree on improving health care, but premiers holding out: Duclos

The ball is in the premiers’ court, Canada’s health minister says
Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos leaves a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and his provincial counterparts agree privately on what needs to be done to improve health care, the federal minister said Wednesday, but he argues “the ball is in the premiers’ court” to accept a deal for more funding from Ottawa.

Talks between federal and provincial politicians have stalled against a backdrop of overwhelmed pediatric hospitals and health-worker burnout that has plunged Canada’s system into a crisis.

Provinces and territories have demanded an increase to the Canada Health Transfer, which is the main source of federal funds that flow into provincial health systems, but the prime minister says that will happen only if the provinces agree to reform and improve those systems.

Duclos met with provincial and territorial health ministers last month in British Columbia, and he says they achieved consensus about what needs to be done, but premiers have refused to sign off.

“We agree on all the problems and the solutions to those problems. We were in total agreement in Vancouver in private,” Duclos told reporters Wednesday.

“The problem is that premiers don’t want us to speak of those outcomes and those results. They want to maintain a futile fight on dollars.”

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson said Wednesday the federal minister’s comments were “inaccurate.”

“The Canada Health Transfer wasn’t even on the agenda when health ministers met last month. He gave media sound bites outside the meeting, but came with no actual proposals of any kind. Those are the facts,” Stefanson said in an emailed statement.

She said Canadians are tired of “federal games” and repeated the premiers’ request for a meeting with the prime minister.

Provincial premiers say they cannot agree on a deal until they sit down as a group with Justin Trudeau. The prime minister will not commit to such a meeting, preferring instead to talk with premiers one-on-one.

“We welcome further details of a federal proposal to anchor and advance substantive dialogue and meaningful progress,” the premiers wrote in a joint letter to the prime minister as part of a meeting request.

Trudeau reiterated his stance on the negotiations and health care in general Wednesday on his way into the final House of Commons question period before the holiday break.

“We’re all worried about the state of health care in this country … and that’s why I’m going to continue to push on provinces to deliver real results for Canadians,” Trudeau said.

“We’ll be there with investments, but we need to make sure that they’re helping Canadians get family doctors, end up off wait lists and into treatment.”

However things got to this point, they are now in a stalemate, said Steven Staples, national director of policy and advocacy at the Canadian Health Coalition.

“People are looking for federal leadership now to break the impasse,” Staples said in an interview Wednesday.

He suggested it might be time for the prime minister to deliver his message to the premiers in person at a sit-down meeting to get the negotiations moving, but Duclos said he is sure the health ministers will be able reach an agreement — if premiers allow it.

“We know we’ll get to a an agreement on outcomes at some point,” Duclos said. “We need premiers to let us do that work.”

—Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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