Ottawa’s health-care deal cements failed status quo in Canada

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, April 4, 2024
Ottawa’s health-care deal cements failed status quo in Canada

Last week, as part of Ottawa’s promised $46 billion in additional health-care spending, the Trudeau government agreed to increase Quebec’s share of federal health-care dollars by $900 million annually. Quebec was the last province to reach an agreement with Ottawa before the March 31 deadline. With the closure of this agreement, Canadian taxpayers are on the hook for more health-care spending than ever before. For the same old broken health-care system.

Of course, it ultimately doesn’t matter whether the $46 billion originates from Ottawa or the provinces. In the end, Canadian taxpayers foot the bill. And what do we get in return for our health-care dollars?

In 2021, the latest year of comparable data, Canada’s total health-care spending (as a percentage of the economy) was the highest among 29 other comparable countries with universal health care (after adjusting for differences in population age). This isn’t a new development. Canada has a long history of having one of most expensive systems among high-income universal health-care countries.

Despite this, according to the latest comparable data, Canada ranks among the poorest performing universal health-care countries in key areas such as the number of physicians, hospital beds and diagnostic technology (e.g. MRI machines). Further, according to the Commonwealth Fund, in 2020 Canada ranked dead last on timely access to specialist consultations and non-emergency surgery.

Meanwhile, public health-care spending in Canada will reach a projected $244.1 billion in 2023, which translates to $6,205 per person—nearly double the level of per-person spending (inflation-adjusted) three decades ago. And yet, last year Canadians endured the longest median wait time (27.7 weeks) ever recorded for non-emergency surgery.

In short, Canada’s health-care system is in shambles, but the answer does not lie in simply throwing more money in its general direction. Federal politicians should instead look to the example of welfare reform during the Chrétien era in the 1990s. Those reforms, which reduced federal transfers to provinces and eliminated most of the “strings” attached to federal funding, resulted in increased provincial autonomy, greater policy experimentation, fewer Canadians needing welfare and savings for the federal government (i.e. taxpayers).

This is the opposite of today’s approach to health care, where the existing vehicle for federal funding (the Canada Health Transfer) is connected to the Canada Health Act (CHA), which prevents provincial governments from innovating and experimenting in health care by threatening financial penalties for non-compliance with often vaguely defined federal preferences. The result is a stalemate that satisfies no one and ensures that Canada’s policies remain at odds with the policies of our better-performing universal health-care peers.

While new federal dollars for health care are undoubtedly appealing to premiers, they will not improve the state of health care for Canadians. Until our federal politicians have the courage to reform the CHA and follow the example of 1990s welfare reform to improve outcomes, our health-care system’s unacceptable status quo will continue.

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