Next generation of health care: time for federal leadership is long overdue

This article was published by The Hill Times on February 21st 2012.  To see this article and other related articles on The Hill Times website, please click here.

What our health-care system needs today is leadership. Leadership to put in place the much needed reforms that have been in talks for over a decade.

PARLIAMENT HILL—Across our country, no other public social service is cherished as much as our healthcare system and its underlying principles set in the Canada Health Act. Canadians appreciate the peace of mind of knowing that whatever health problem they have, help is available to them, regardless of their ability to pay.

But that’s not to say that our system is perfect. There are still many improvements that need to be made to ensure Canadians get proper value for money from our health-care system, and at the rate at which costs are increasing, the current status quo just won’t do.

This is why we need to start building the next generation of health care in our country. We need to look at the areas where we can control costs and move forward on many of the reforms included in the Romanow Report and the 2003-2004 Health Accords meant to improve our system.

While many of the tools for improving service delivery are under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, the federal government has also a key role to play in providing proper leadership. Unfortunately, this is not the direction this government is taking. After failing miserably at implementing the commitments in the 2003-2004 Health Accords, Stephen Harper recently put forward a plan to unilaterally reduce the federal contribution to health care. At a time when the differences between provincial health-care systems in Canada is growing, federal leadership is required now more than ever to ensure Canadians have access to quality health care across the country.

I was in Victoria during the recent Premier’s conference on health care sustainability, where the NDP held its own event to hear from key health care advocates and researchers and met with many interested Canadians. We received the same message from the Premiers and citizens alike: don’t privatize healthcare; continue to expand it in innovative ways.

While some people spread the word that more privatization is needed to control costs in healthcare, evidence points to the contrary. While total spending on health care has grown from about seven per cent of GDP to around 12 per cent today, that number hides the fact that the components covered by Medicare have remained between four and five per cent of GDP since the mid ’70s, while the other components not covered by medicare has grown from three per cent to seven per cent of GDP. Public delivery has been an important cost container. Therefore, a sustainable health-care system delivering quality health-care services should rely on more, not less, public coverage.

To move away from the status quo, there are three key areas outlined in the Health Accords that we should immediately start with: better drug coverage, home care, and primary care reform.

First, we need to address the ever-increasing costs of prescription medication. Over the past 10 years, they have increased at a rate of 10 per cent per year. The 2004 Health Accord included a pharmaceutical strategy aimed at reducing the cost of medications. Unfortunately, this plan, which is mostly of federal jurisdiction, has gone nowhere. Such a plan would not only save our health-care system billions of dollars each year, it would also help Canadians have better access to more effective drugs.

We also need to adjust to the 21st century reality of offering more services in the community. New health-care delivery models such as home care and palliative care have proven to be less expensive than hospital beds, while keeping the patient in a much more familiar environment. In the 2004 Health Accord, first ministers agreed to provide first dollar coverage for certain home-care services. While some progress has been made, there is no reporting as to what services are covered in each province. It is impossible to know if there is a baseline of services offered. Establishing a comprehensive care strategy will save costs in the long-run and improve the health of millions of Canadians.

Finally, primary health-care reform is considered the key to a more efficient and cost-effective use of health-care resources. A better coordination of health-care resources in the community has shown to provide better access and better health outcomes for patients.

Primary care reform would lower costs while supporting more timely access to health-care services, particularly for the delivery of health-care services to Canadians who live in rural and remote areas and aboriginal people.

What our health-care system needs today is leadership. Leadership to put in place the much needed reforms that have been in talks for over a decade. The provinces want a federal partner that’s committed to improving medicare, who seeks accountability by linking spending to clear health care improvements. The hands-off approach of the Conservative government simply doesn’t work for the provinces, and it won’t work for Canadians.

NDP MP Libby Davies, who represents Vancouver East, B.C., is her party’s health critic. 

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