Liberal – Conservative tag team threatens health care

Monday, April 5, 2004


Written by Scott Piatkowski

Federal Health Minister Pierre Pettigrew wants you to know that our health care system is going to be just fine. Last Thursday, after three months on the job in which he has been virtually silent on health issues, he told reporters, “I want to tell Canadians this is the number one priority of our government, we're serious about it, we have a process under way, we will work with the provinces.” He added that “This is a plan that will certainly work with the (provincial health) ministers.”

Um, what plan would that be, Pierre? Perhaps he is referring to the plan that Roy Romanow laid out for Canadians after two years of cross-country hearings. But no, that plan called for significant, long term, sustainable increases in funding – to the tune of $15 billion – so that Ottawa would again be covering the 25% of health costs for which it once paid. Instead, the Liberals have offered only meager, one-time, conditional funding of their alleged “number one priority and said that any additional money will have to wait until the 2005 budget.

Romanow also called for lower prescription drug costs, a national home care program, and a greater reliance on alternative health providers such as nurse practitioners. Nothing has been done to implement those recommendations, despite the fact that polls indicated that three-quarters of Canadians wanted Romanow’s recommendations to be implemented starting within one hundred days of the report’s release (in the fall of 2002). As Manitoba Premier Gary Doer noted in response to the budget, “There is a tremendous gap” between the Liberals’ promises on health care and their delivery.

Curiously, it was left to an anonymous source in the Prime Minister’s Office to divulge that the federal government was “open to changing the Canada Health Act”. The statement was subsequently disowned by Paul Martin, but it’s safe to say that anonymous sources in the Prime Minister’s Office don’t normally go spouting off to the media unless it is part of a carefully calculated political strategy. In this case, the statements appeared designed to placate Alberta Premier Ralph Klein who claims that the health care system is “unsustainable” and that he must introduce a parallel private health care system. This pressure for “innovative solutions” (read “privatization”) is really the flipside of the Liberals’ failure to fund health care adequately.

Given this record of massive cuts to and vague platitudes regarding their number one priority, it may seem strange that Canadians assign any credibility at all to Liberal promises on health care. The answer to this curiosity stems from the Liberals’ ability to say “We’re not as bad as the other guys. You need us to defend health care from the Conservatives.” And, there is no question that the Conservative agenda on health care is dangerous.

In October 2002, Stephen Harper set out the Reformatory position on health care in an article published in The Toronto Star. He stated his support for public health care, but stated that “We also support the exploration of alternative ways to deliver health care. Moving toward alternatives, including those provided by the private sector, is a natural development of our health care system. This is not a concept to be feared, it is already happening in many provinces at no additional cost to Canadians. A government monopoly is not the only way to deliver health care to Canadians. It should not matter who delivers our health care as long as Canadians have access to timely service regardless of financial means.”

In 1997, when Harper was Vice-President of the National Citizens Coalition (an organization set up specifically to fight public health care), the organization argued that “It’s past time the feds scrapped the Canada Health Act.” And in 2001, Harper (by then President of the NCC) said, “what we clearly need is experimentation with market reforms and private delivery options.” He also advocated that Alberta pull out of medicare and “build firewalls” between the province and the rest of Canada. He even wrote that “the biggest public policy problem of the coming generation (is) our government-controlled health-care monopoly.”

So, clearly Canadians do have to be wary of what the Conservatives are proposing regarding health care. However, the idea that it will be the Liberals who will save health care from the Conservatives is almost laughable. Both parties are undermining health care to an equal degree. In many ways, they need each other to accomplish the job; the Liberals can get away with starving and undermining health care as long as the Reformatories appear to be worse. The Reformatories may be properly vilified in the eyes of the public, but their policies are being implemented by stealth by the same Liberal government which claims to have health care as its number one priority.

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