Tragic Costs of Ottawa's Health Care Neglect

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Federal government cutbacks and delays in health care funding have imposed tragic costs on Canadians, the Canadian Medical Association tells Ottawa. The government is urged to deliver on its promised "contingent" $2 billion for health care, provide an additional $1.5 billion over five years, and act quickly on other measures to meet urgent and neglected needs. Presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, Ottawa, September 28, 2003.

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It's a pleasure to address the Standing Committee on Finance today as part of your pre-budget consultations.

While I can understand that in some quarters, perhaps even among parliamentarians, there is a sense of health fatigue, if this year has taught us anything, it is that we must remain vigilant to ensure the health and safety of Canadians. SARS and other emerging threats have clearly illustrated the dangers of being complacent.

The CMA brief contains a number of important recommendations that address long-term issues and challenges of accessibility, sustainability and accountability, issues that are essential to the care and treatment of patients. However, since the Committee is focusing on immediate priorities, I will focus my remarks on three areas:

1) Addressing the number one health care crisis: Shortages of health providers.

2) Protecting public health and safety.

3) Delivering on the Health Accord promise.

Shortage of health providers

The shortage of health providers is the single most important challenge facing health care in Canada today. All other investments are irrelevant if you don't have the qualified people available to provide care and treatment to patients.

Whether it is physicians or nurses, or other health care professionals, shortages persist among every provider group at every level of the system.

Some would argue that the answer lies in passing the work from one set of hands to another. This is demoralizing to frontline health care providers. The fact is we need more hands on deck.

Government response to the critical shortage of health care professionals has been to play a "shell-game." Responsibility has been shuffled from one level of government to another and from one department to another. No jurisdiction seems willing to assume responsibility.

While we were encouraged with the $90 million provided in the 2003 federal budget to improve health human resources planning and coordination, we are extremely disappointed that we have not been consulted on how this money will be allocated and for what purposes.

We know that various federal departments are vying for funding but no one department is coming forward to provide leadership with clear proposals.

Our brief includes initiatives to respond effectively to this issue. They are not radical. They require only that the federal government supply as yet unseen leadership on the issue of health human resource planning.

We urge the Committee to ask why the CMA's proposals and other health human resource initiatives have not been acted upon. The CMA would like to know what it is going to take for governments to take this critical issue seriously.

Protecting public health and safety

Protecting public health is now a top of mind issue for Canadians. I would like to read a few short quotes pertinent to public health and emergency preparedness:

"There's a strong possibility that public health officials will be overwhelmed ... it's also possible that the event is so massive that even the provincial or territorial resources are besieged."

"There is an important role for the federal government to urgently improve the coordination of response plans in cooperation with provincial authorities."

"We are concerned about the infrastructure's ability to deal with multiple crises."

"Health Canada must help facilitate efforts to rationalize preparations and make it easier for jurisdictions to assist one another in a time of disaster. …