Federal minister reports ‘a lot of progress’ in health-care talks with provinces

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Monday that ongoing federal-provincial talks on the Canada Health Transfer are going well — and there could be a summit between the prime minister and the premiers in the coming days to finalize an increase to the Canada Health Transfer.

Speaking to reporters in Hamilton ahead of a cabinet retreat, LeBlanc said he’s been working the phones, talking to premiers and senior provincial officials as Ottawa looks to secure an agreement to increase the federal-provincial CHT transfer with conditions attached.

The provinces have been demanding a multi-billion dollar cash injection to stand up a system that has been undermined by COVID-19 and labour shortages.

Ottawa has said it wants its investment to go beyond short-term fixes to deliver systemic change to a system that faces a multitude of challenges — in primary care, mental health, long-term care, virtual care and data collection.

“There’s been a lot of progress over the weekend,” LeBlanc said. “I’m optimistic.”

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc is seen leaving a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc says there’s been solid progress in health-care talks. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

LeBlanc also suggested the deal that’s in the works could guarantee a certain level of funding for years to come.

“This is part of a process that will take us, we believe, to an important agreement that will improve the health-care system for the long term for Canadians,” he said.

LeBlanc said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will meet with his provincial counterparts only when some of the finer points of the deal have been negotiated.

The premiers have been demanding a face-to-face meeting with Trudeau for months.

“At the right moment, as the prime minister has always said, he’ll sit down with his fellow first ministers,” LeBlanc said.

To help stabilize the system, the premiers have been asking Ottawa to dramatically increase how much it spends each year on the CHT — the block of money sent by the federal government to the provinces and territories to fund health services. The premiers want Ottawa to increase its share of health-care costs from the current 22 per cent to 35 per cent.

The federal Liberal government has said the 22 per cent figure doesn’t reflect the whole funding picture.

In 1977, some tax points were transferred from Ottawa to the provinces, which allowed them to collect a larger share of all tax revenues to fund social programs like health care. Those tax points, Ottawa argues, should count for something.

Trudeau and his ministers have convened here in Hamilton — an industrial city of some 785,000 people an hour west of Toronto — to discuss health care and other politically sensitive issues that might emerge when Parliament resumes sitting next week after its winter break.

A small group of protesters gathered outside the Hamilton conference centre where the cabinet was meeting, carrying signs with expletives denouncing Trudeau for his government’s actions during the pandemic crisis.

Protestors in the streets in Hamilton, Ontario.
Protesters hold a flag reading “Trudeau Must Go” outside the Hamilton Convention Centre in Hamilton, Ont., ahead of the Liberal cabinet retreat, on Monday, January 23, 2023. (Nick Iwanyshyn/Canadian Press)

The economy is also top of mind for the cabinet as inflation continues to drive up the cost of living — an issue that dominates the political message of Trudeau’s main opponent, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.

Poilievre has blamed inflation on high government spending, while the governing Liberals say it’s a global phenomenon driven by the pandemic, supply chain disruptions and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

To address affordability, the government temporarily hiked the GST rebate and the federal housing benefit for renters. The cabinet could decide to push ahead with more supports when the Commons returns for its first sitting of 2023.

Carlene Variyan, associate vice-president at Summa Strategies and a former senior staffer in several Liberal ministers’ offices, said that if more measures are coming, they’ll be similar to what has already been offered.

“I think we know what the playbook is from this government on measures to support Canadians during times of economic downturn. It’s always going to be policies that are very focused on workers and delivering direct support to families, rather than trickle-down measures,” she said.

Two men smile at each other while shaking hands.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh meets with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Also up for discussion at the cabinet retreat is the Liberals’ supply-and-confidence agreement with the NDP, now almost a year old.

In exchange for New Democrats supporting the government on confidence votes between now and 2025, the Liberal government has agreed to spend more on social programs.

At the NDP’s urging, the government has started to enact a national dental care program for children.

The deal also calls for the creation of “a universal national pharmacare program” by year’s end.

As the Liberal government pushes ahead with its climate change agenda, which could disrupt the country’s natural resources sector, the Liberal-NDP agreement also calls for a “just transition” programme to help displaced workers find jobs in other industries.

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has said legislation to help workers in the oil and gas sector move into green energy jobs will be landing sometime this year.

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