Health care advocates across the country watched the April 7 budget announcement with high expectations. After months of consultations with health care groups and frontline workers, as well as strong health care commitments in the Liberal-NDP supply and confidence agreement, many expected a federal budget with a bold plan to stabilize and rebuild our health care system as we emerge from a pandemic.
“There’s a huge missed opportunity to move forward on pharmacare, long-term care and needed health care spending to deal with the pandemic’s impact,” says says Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Senior Economist David Macdonald.
Health and human resources crisis
Doctors, nurses, allied health professions, and care aides are among some of the health care workers that have been sounding the alarm about the staffing shortages in their professions.
A recent poll found that three-quarters of health care workers have experienced pandemic-related burnout. The telephone survey of more than 800 members of the Hospital Employee’s Union found that, two years into the pandemic, one in three workers is likely to leave health care in the next two years.
With similar trends across the country, we urgently needed a bold investment in a health and human resource strategy that would stabilize these professions. Ottawa has made a start with $26.2 million over four years to increase forgivable student loans for health professions and $115 million over five years to remove barriers for health professionals with foreign credentials to practice in Canada. These investments are still a long ways away from a strong plan for recruitment and retention.
During the fall federal election, the Liberal Party campaigned on a promise to invest $9 billion into long-term care. The investment was intended to hire 50,000 new health care aides as well as boost their minimum wage to $25 an hour, two measures that would go a long way to address staff shortages in the sector. However, there is no new funding in this budget for long-term care.
The fall election also brought a commitment to pass a Safe Long-Term Care Act that will bring in legislated care and safety standards across the country. There is no mention of such a legislative step in the budget.
The NDP-Liberal agreement may have put Pharmacare back on the federal political agenda, but CCPA’s David Macdonald still considers the budget “a huge missed opportunity to move forward on pharmacare”.
Pharmacare has a road map and implementation plan that has been ready since 2019. There is no real need to wait to finally implement first steps such as providing funding for essential medicines. The budget reiterates a commitment to table a Canada Pharmacare bill and work to have it passed by the end of 2023, then task Canadian Drug Agency to develop national formulary of essential medicines and bulk purchasing plan. No funding is provided for pharmacare in the upcoming year.
Ottawa signaled that federal health transfers in 2022-23 would not increase any more than the $45.2 billion that had already been announced. While provincial governments have been calling for an increase in the federal government’s share of health care spending, the budget announcement is quite clear that funding agreements would follow negotiations with provinces.
With health transfers to provinces, it remains critical that funding comes with strings attached. While health care is a provincial jurisdiction, the federal government must demonstrate leadership in setting the priorities, targets and standards that provinces must meet to qualify for funding. By putting money for specific issues on the table, as we have seen Ottawa do for the child care file, the federal government would be able to exercise more leadership in addressing health care priorities.