Michael M. Rachlis MD MSc FRCPC

The Prime Minister vs. the premiers: round two

(Slightly modified from the original version printed in the Winnipeg Free Press: February 4, 2003)

On Tuesday Mr. Chretien will host the premiers for dinner at 24 Sussex and then they will meet the next day to thrash out our country’s health policy. It is overwhelmingly likely there will be an agreement but will it provide true cures for Medicare’s malaise or will it turn out to be just another batch of snake oil?

Since Mr. Romanow released his Royal Commission at the end of November, the federal government and the provinces have been posturing and positioning. Initially the federal government was ambiguous about what course it would take. The Prime Minister said that he would be digesting his old friend's advice but gave it no more profile than the succession of reports that have been produced by Michael Kirby’s senate committee. This despite the fact that Romanow's report was a Royal Commission that had produced volumes of research and directly heard from thousands of Canadians. However, the federal government made its position clear two weeks ago when health minister McLellan made a speech at Carlton University and Mr. Chretien sent a draft accord to the premiers.

Mr. Chretien has accepted most of Romanow's advice after all. The feds propose targetted funding to Romanow’s key priorities including primary health care, home care, and pharmacare. Ottawa also suggests a medical equipment fund, stable long-term funding sequestered into a specific Canadian Health Transfer leaving the present CHST as just a social transfer vehicle. Finally, they also proffer a Canadian health council, which would track performance and provide advice on management.

The feds leaked Mr. Chretien’s proposed accord to the media just prior to the premiers’ meeting in Toronto two weeks ago. The premiers were not amused and Mr. Klein let the country know that he was peeved at being upstaged yet again by Shawinagin’s favourite son. However, despite the bold attempt at a united front, it is clear that the provinces are bitterly divided. Alberta, Quebec, and Ontario insist that they are big kids and won’t let the federal government tell them how to spend the new money. BC made similar noises behind the scenes but Mr. Campbell is not seeking out microphones these days. Only Saskatchewan's Lorne Calvert and to a lesser extent Manitoba’s Gary Doer voiced support for conditional funding. But the Atlantic Provinces are generally supportive and don’t want to jeopardize new money.

In September 2000, the federal government attempted to tie its new spending to similar priorities, but the provinces forced the federal government to provide most of the money in untargetted grants. Ottawa did manage to target roughly 4 percent of the new funds for new medical equipment and 3 percent for primary health care reform.

But the provinces paid a big price for their 'wins' over the federal government. Because 93% of the money was untargetted, doctors, nurses, and other health workers strong-armed their provinces to pay large (albeit overdue) pay increases to do the same work as before. The new money was supposed to lever reform, but instead the chimera of reform pried more funding for the status quo.

The feds now are echoing the words of Romanow and Kirby by demanding that money must buy change. However, it is still unclear how the federal government would ensure that their money arrived in provincial treasuries with tracking devices never mind tight strings. Ernie Eves claims that Ottawa will be paying for his promised increases in health spending. But, if he doesn't kick in more of his own cash then doesn't that mean that Ottawa is paying for Ontario's tax cuts?

The publication of performance indicators could be another way of measuring the provinces use of the new money. The September 2000 federal/provincial/territorial agreement was supposed to lead to the development of 14 key performance indicators. However, this past fall, the provinces only reported on six joint indicators and they were mainly longstanding public health data such as life expectancy which have little to do with the performance of the health care system. The public was supposed to be consulted during this process. This could have been a unique opportunity for democratic influence on health policy direction. However, there were no public consultations because according to one provincial official, "there just wasn't time". Ottawa noted this failure and, much to the chagrin of the provinces, federal officials have been beavering over tomes of planned indicators to measure system performance.

Manitoba and a few other provinces have the capability to provide much better indicators of system performance. But, most lack the data systems necessary to capture the information needed to construct indicators which actually relate to health system performance.

As the chefs at Sussex drive finalize the menu and officials settle the agenda what should Canadians be looking for from next week's meeting? One possibility is that the parties will strike a similar deal to September 2000. This scenario would include roughly $5 Billion per year in new funding and little in the way of tragetting or accountability. Messers Klein, Landry, and Eves would be very pleased and might even say some kind words about the Prime Minister in return. On January 27th, the Canadian Medical Association recanted their strong support for Romanow by asking that three quarters of the new money be untargetted appearing to place them more in the provinces' camp. However, this scenario would be a repudiation of Romanow and Kirby. Furthermore, the Canadian Nurses Association and all other health groups are aligned with the feds.

It's much more likely that the provinces will agree to most of the Prime Minister's demands in return for the money. Except for oil-rich Alberta, the provinces face tight finances this year and need the federal cash to balance their books. Premiers Landry and Eves are down in the polls and face elections this year. Romanow's recommendations are overwhelmingly popular in both provinces. Sovereignty is not currently on the Quebec political agenda and the residents of la Belle Province don't trust the PQ with the their health system anymore than the federal government. Eves knows that health care is his Achilles' heel. Ontarians are increasingly concerned about his government's inability to reform the system and troubled by his transfer of hospitals, MRIs, and cancer clinics to for-profit businesses.

However, as in 2000, the agreement will only be the first step. Three years ago, the feds took their eyes off the ball after the signatures were dry. They campaigned in November 2000 as Medicare's saviour, crushed the opposition, and then let the provinces spend the supposedly targetted cash for high tech equipment on lawn mowers, icemakers, and woodworking tools. Even the funds for primary health care were not really targetted. Ottawa initially demanded the provinces meet five criteria to be eligible for the primary health care money, but the provinces forced the federal government to fund them if they met only one. As a result after thirty years of recommendations for primary health care reform, most provinces still have only a few pilot projects.

The feds evidently believe that they can improve accountability through the proposed Health Council. But, it would be a mistake to believe that the Council could make up for lack of political attention. First, the Council is unlikely on its own to develop the indicators necessary to measure system performance. Second, it would have no authority to penalize provinces, which didn't follow the rules. Finally, last week, Mr. Chretien offered as a peace offering to allow the provinces to control the majority of the appointments.

Next week the nation's health policy will be in the cauldron. The first ministers' decisions will have profound implications for decades. However, an agreement based on Romanow's report will be just the beginning. The federal government and all the rest of us will need to keep our eyes on the ball to ensure that any agreement is actually implemented. For Canadians, eternal vigilance remains the price of Medicare.

Dr. Michael Rachlis is a Toronto-based (but Winnipeg born) health policy analyst. His third book, Prescription for Excellence: How Innovation is Saving Canada's Health Care System, will be published by HarperCollins in August 2003.