The election’s over — let’s fix health care (editorial)

Polls can be difficult to read. During the federal election, Canadians told pollsters health care was their number one concern. And then in the biggest poll of them all — the election itself — the party that slashed health-care funding by billions annually was elected to its third majority.

The Liberal party had two basic planks to its health-care platform. First, try to convince voters that putting back all the money they stripped from the system over two terms in power on the very eve of the election made the party the saviour of health care. Failing that, revert to plank two: “We’re not as bad for publicly funded health care as the Canadian Alliance.”

The Alliance was playing its own Orwellian version of semantics over the definition of two tier. Apparently, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein and his then right-hand cabinet colleague Stockwell Day favouring the establishment of for-profit health facilities doesn’t fall into that definition.

The Alliance did get one thing right — as did the other opposition parties — funding cuts by the Liberal government have hurt the system and gave rise to the call for private health facilities in the first place.

Provincial governments share some of the blame for cutting funds and failing to restructure the system to meet needs. But massive reductions in federal transfer payments had a direct impact on the quality of care in this country.

Canada’s health-care system is a precious advantage for businesses competing with the economic powerhouse south of the border. In the United States, health care consumes 13.5 per cent of GDP (and rising), whereas in Canada the figure is four points lower. It is unlikely the U.S. will ever move to change a system where too many third parties are making barrels of cash from disease and illness, leaving Canada with perhaps its only opportunity to get an edge on America’s economy-of-scale advantage.

Canada’s health system can keep the workforce healthier at lower costs. But this advantage will only survive if the system receives the funding and attention it deserves.

Now that the election is over it’s time for the Liberals to put their money where their rhetoric is. Financial surpluses need to be directed to health care, but on top of that human resource strategies need to be developed and implemented to ensure the health of the system.

This country is suffering from a severe shortage of nurses — a problem that is worsening. Over the last decade, nurses have been laid off and stressed out, and the message received is: “don’t go into nursing unless being underpaid, burned-out and unappreciated match your career goals.”

Ottawa and the provinces need to develop a national HR strategy to solve the nursing shortage. It’s the one New Year’s resolution Jean Chretien can make to truly support publicly funded health care.

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