PEI Premier seeks health 'synergies' in wake of Ottawa's funding decree

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz speaks to reporters as Saskatchewan's Brad Hall looks on during a winter meeting provincial leaders in Victoria on January 17, 2012. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS)

Prince Edward Island – like most others in Canada – is trying to rein in a sizeable deficit and cuts to public spending are being made across the board, except to health care.

Premier Robert Ghiz, who was in Toronto this week to promote the island’s economic opportunities, says health care is the toughest file on the desk of every provincial and territorial leader in the country. The challenges are many, the costs are rising, and the federal government, he says, needs to step up to the plate.

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Mr. Ghiz co-chairs of a working group with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall that was established to find health-care efficiencies through innovation. It was struck earlier this year after the federal government unilaterally decreed that the annual 6-per-cent increases in health transfers from Ottawa to the provinces will be replaced in 2016-17 by increases that are tied to the GDP.

The aim of the premiers working group is to find “synergies” across the country, Mr. Ghiz said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

“We have 13 distinct health-care systems being run across Canada right now and there’s probably a lot of areas where we can work more closely together,” he explained. “We are all dealing with the same problems and that is that there’s rising costs in health care and it’s impossible to keep pace with these rising costs. So how do we adapt our system or change our system so that we can make health care sustainable in the long-run?”

But, as the provinces grapple with the myriad of health-care challenges – an aging population, new and expensive drugs and technologies, escalating human resources costs, and public expectations that are “sometimes are beyond what health care is even able to deliver” – Mr. Ghiz said the federal government has opted to step away from the issue.

“From the PEI perspective, I was disappointed that the Prime Minister and the federal government chose to take a back seat when it comes to health-care negotiations in the future,” he said. “Yes, they put some new dollars on the table. Do I think they are enough? No I don’t.”

The latest budget in PEI has been described as “tough,” even by the Premier. It calls for 3 per cent cuts in spending to all areas of government. Municipalities and universities have been hit and roughly 300 people will lose full-time jobs. Meanwhile, health-care costs, which account for about 40 per cent of the province’s budget, have been increasing at a rate of 7 to 10 per cent a year for the past five to 10 years.

The federal government pays about 20 per cent of the health-care tab across Canada while the provinces pick up the rest, Mr. Ghiz said. And Ottawa is unwilling to negotiate the formula.

“But that’s their job. Their job is to work with the provinces. They are not just there to put out a number at the end of the day,” the Premier said. “I want the federal government to be involved with important things such as health care in our country and I think Canadians do as well. But right now the federal government doesn’t want to be involved.”

In Ottawa’s absence, the working group is forging ahead, Mr. Ghiz said. He and Mr. Wall are meeting with all of the provincial health ministers and have had discussions with the head of the associations that represent Canada’s doctors and nurses.

They are trying to establish a more uniform system of health care across the country where the clinical-practice guidelines are the same from province to province. And they are looking at ways to reduce the costs of human resources.

Will the findings of the working group make health care cheaper? “Probably not. But is it going to be more sustainable? That’s what we are hoping for,” Mr. Ghiz said.

And “if we want to make sure that health care is sustainable in the long run,” he said, “it’s going to be important for the federal government to be engaged.”

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