Reforming Canadian Healthcare

The provinces are responsible for administering and delivering healthcare in Canada and while provincial jurisdiction may appear odd, it was not of major concern when the Fathers of Confederation ratified the British North America Act in 1867. Following several years of debate, however, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council declared the provinces responsible for administering and provisioning healthcare. The federal government is responsible for public health, in addition to providing healthcare to certain groups, including First Nations, Inuit, military personnel, and federal inmates. It does provide funding to the provinces via the Canada Health Transfer, which is supposed to assist them with costs and ensure some degree of equivalency between provincial healthcare systems.

Former Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas, widely recognized to be the “Father of Medicare,” fought ardently for the implementation of a publicly funded healthcare system. In 1962, one year after his departure from provincial politics, Saskatchewan began providing public healthcare and, shortly thereafter, so too did Alberta. Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, in 1958, announced the federal government would fund 50 per cent of provincial healthcare, and eight years later, then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson ratified this motion.

As a result, Ottawa’s role in healthcare funding is controversial and has been a major policy issue in Canada. Indeed, without federal funding, there would be significant disparities among the provinces in terms of quality, yet, despite these concerns, healthcare innovation is provincial jurisdiction.

The debate over federal funding remerged following the expiration of the Canada Health Accord, established in 2004 under Paul Martin’s tenure as Prime Minister of Canada. It guaranteed six per cent annual increases in funding for healthcare and was supposed to help with deficiencies, such as high wait times. Stephen Harper’s government recently committed to a six per cent increase until 2017, after which the government will fund based on inflation-adjusted economic growth (although the level of funding will not fall below 3 per cent). This development has prompted critics to demand the government return to guaranteeing the six per cent increase, arguing that underfunding issues could worsen the system, and more worrying, allow new issues to emerge.

However, despite funding increases, very little has changed in terms of quality. Kelly McParland of the National Post, for instance, notes the lack of progress in reducing wait times. Moreover, citing the Health Council, he noted that homecare services for seniors are inadequate, primary care is insufficient, and prescription drugs are unaffordable. For example, as reported by the National Post, the federal government has given $41 billion in extra healthcare funding since 2004, yet in 2010 Canada ranked last of 11 countries in wait times.

McParland is not the sole critic. Indeed, there are several reports revealing the shortcomings of Canada’s healthcare system given the amount of money spent on it. Funding, therefore, is not necessarily the issue. There needs to be real reform of the Canadian healthcare system: Ottawa should retain its role, however, the provinces must consider new healthcare models as a means of strengthening their programs. Perhaps the first step ought to be reforming the Canada Health Act to be less restrictive in terms of delivery requirements. The Act requires that healthcare be publicly administered, greatly restricting any partnership with private entities. France, on the other hand, embraces a two-tier system, which typically performs highly in comparison to healthcare systems administered by other rich, democratic countries, in terms of both cost and outcome.

Randy Kaye is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

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