Libby’s Hill Times Health Policy Editorial

Health Care: Now is the Time to Act

I recently attended the Canadian Medical Association’s annual general council meeting, where they released a poll showing that Canadians believe that ‘improving our health care system’ should be the number one priority for the federal government.  The NDP is listening to Canadians, and believes the federal government should be innovating and investing in our health care system, rather than making unilateral cuts to health care funding.

That’s why, on September 27th, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and I announced that the NDP will be spending the coming months engaging with Canadians on what changes are needed to improve our health care services.  We will focus our efforts on improving our public health care system, knowing that the highest quality health care is best provided through a public system.

All too often we hear arguments that public health care is too expensive and because of this, not sustainable in the long-term. This myth is usually put forward by those who hope for and would benefit from gradual privatization. Studies show provinces with the highest proportion of privatized services are the ones where the wait times are highest. Private practices poach human resources from our public system, and lead to reduced quality of care because profit demands lower wages, fewer staff, and selective coverage based on procedure costs.  The best way to get more value for our money is to expand the scope of public coverage.

One of the fastest rising costs in our health care system is prescription drugs (currently not covered by Medicare).  In 2011, Canadians paid $ 27.2 billion for prescription medications. As proposed in 2004 Health Accords, we need a pharmaceutical strategy aimed at reducing the cost of medications. This July Canada’s Premiers committed to working on a plan to bulk-buy certain medications to save costs, and we believe the federal government should partner with them to create a pan-Canadian plan that would lower purchasing costs and make all medications more affordable for Canadians.

Access to affordable and safe prescription medications is the first of four key health care issues New Democrats will address.  The other three are: 1) providing a continuum of care in community and long-term residential settings; 2) decreasing wait times and providing a community health care provider for every Canadian; and 3) a commitment to social and economic conditions that allow every Canadian to lead a healthy life.  These priorities are raised time and time again in leading research on the future of the Canadian health care system, and they have been reiterated by many provinces and multiple groups in the health field.

Changing demographics in Canada, including caring for an aging population, are a primary reason why we need to establish a continuing care strategy that helps Canadians access better community care options.  New healthcare delivery models such as home care, long-term care, and palliative care have proven to be less expensive than hospital beds, while keeping the patient in a much more familiar environment.  A continuing care strategy would also establish funds to expand these services, improve supports for caregivers, and allow provinces and territories to share best practices. 

As a part of improving access to primary care, better coordination of healthcare resources in the community has been 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 healthcare services to Canadians who live in rural and remote areas and Aboriginal people.

Finally, every Canadian should have the opportunity to lead a healthy life, and the federal government can help by making sure people have decent incomes, access to healthy food, affordable housing, and a social safety net – the social determinants of health.  This is particularly important to Aboriginal communities, who must have access to the resources they need.  The NDP supports funding that goes towards examining new ideas for tackling the health crisis facing many Aboriginal communities.  But when the Conservative government recently announced a $25 million dollar investment in Aboriginal health research over 10 years, it shamelessly trumpeted existing commitments while cutting all funding to Aboriginal organizations that were already doing this work. 

While many of the tools for improving service delivery are under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, the federal government has a key role to play in providing leadership.  The federal government’s engagement in health care issues is required now more than ever, to make our public health care system sustainable for generations to come and ensuring the right infrastructure is in place.  Canadians can’t wait for access to high quality health care – the time to act is now.