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Billions more for health care tops premiers' wish list for throne speech

A healthcare worker walks in the area near COVID-19 sampling station. EPA/MARTIN DIVISEK

Canada’s premiers unanimously demanded Friday that the federal government fork over at least $28 billion more each year for health care, among other big-ticket items on their wish list for next week’s throne speech.

They also want Ottawa to increase funding for infrastructure projects by $10 billion.

And they want retroactive reforms to the fiscal stabilization program so that provinces hit with a sudden plunge in revenue get more money. That would mean an extra $6 billion for Alberta alone.

But it’s health care that tops their wish list.

“Nothing right now is more important to Canadians than health care because without health care, we have nothing,” Ontario’s Doug Ford told a news conference alongside Quebec Premier Francois Legault, Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Manitoba’s Brian Pallister.

“If we don’t have our health, we don’t have an economy.”

Speaking directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ford added: “I can’t be any more clear. We need your support for health care, we’re in desperate need of your support.”

The four premiers said they were speaking unanimously for all 13 provincial and territorial leaders. They travelled to the nation’s capital to appear in person at the news conference in order to underscore the importance of their demands.

The federal government this year will transfer to the provinces nearly $42 billion for health care, under and arrangement that see the transfer increase by at least three per cent each year.

But the premiers said that amounts to only 22 per cent of the actual cost of delivering health care and doesn’t keep pace with yearly cost increases of about six per cent.

They want Ottawa to increase its share to 35 per cent, which would mean $70 billion this year.

“It is time for the federal government to do its fair share,” Legault said in French.

On top of the annual transfer, the federal government has given the provinces an extra $19 billion to help them cope with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, including more than $10 billion specifically for COVID-related health-care costs.

But the premiers said that extra money is one-off; what they need is an increase in annual transfers to ensure stable, long-term funding.

“We’ve had this problem to a growing degree over a number of years. Because it’s happened gradually, perhaps we didn’t notice it so much. COVID makes it worse,” said Pallister.

“Now we have hundreds of thousands of delayed treatments, diagnoses, surgeries that have yet to be performed. It is absolutely critical that we get this foundational part of our social structure repaired.”

The federal government has already shovelled unprecedented amounts of money into emergency aid benefits and other measures to help Canadians weather the pandemic. The federal deficit this year alone is forecast to hit $343 billion.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc agreed that quality health care is of critical importance and said the Trudeau government will be happy to discuss the premiers’ demands.

Trudeau has already agreed to hold a virtual meeting with premiers devoted strictly to the issue of health-care transfers.

However, LeBlanc noted premiers have long demanded increased health transfers, including during the era of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, of which Kenney and Pallister were once part.

The “critical question,” LeBlanc said, is whether the federal government has the fiscal capacity to meet that demand now.

“We have said we will stop at nothing to ensure the safety and security of Canadians in the context of the of the COVID-19 pandemic and that remains our priority,” he said.

On infrastructure, LeBlanc said the provinces and territories have not yet used all the money already earmarked for projects. He suggested they should do that before asking for more.

The fiscal stabilization program has not changed since 1995 and the money available to eligible provinces is capped at just $60 per resident. The premiers are asking for that cap to be lifted.

Kenney said the cap has shortchanged his province, which has been hit by a triple whammy of COVID-19, plunging oil prices and decreased demand for his province’s natural resources.

“Alberta’s been there for Canada,” he said.

“Now Canada has to be there for Alberta and other provinces that are facing the greatest economic and fiscal challenge since the Great Depression,” he said.

The throne speech is expected to include three main priorities: measures to protect Canadians’ health and avoid another national lockdown; economic supports to help keep Canadians financially afloat while the pandemic continues; and longer-term measures to eventually rebuild the economy.

In particular, it is expected to promise more health-care funding – including for long-term care homes that have borne the brunt of the more than 9,000 deaths from COVID-19 in Canada – and for child care so that women, hardest hit by the shutdown, can go back to work.