Premiers re-up health transfer ask, citing a surgical backlog

By Catherine Griwkowsky March 5, 2021

Premier Jason Kenney met with Canada’s other premiers on Thursday for a last-ditch attempt at pushing Ottawa to increase health transfers in its upcoming budget.

Premiers are asking the feds to hike the transfer to cover 35 per cent of provincial and territorial health spending — up from the current 22 per cent — without extraneous conditions on how it’s spent. That would bring Ottawa’s annual health transfer to $70 billion, which the premiers hope to see rise by at least five per cent in future years.

The group pushed back against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s position that changes to the health transfer arrangement should wait until after the pandemic (and that any new money would come with conditions).

Conditional funds are no bueno for Quebec Premier François Legault, as well as Premier Kenney, who has previously said he will not participate in a federal pharmacare program, for instance.

According to Legault, at least two other federal parties are onside with hiking health transfers to $70 billion. Both the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois told him they support the full amount, while the Conservative Party of Canada said it supports no-strings-attached funding but was non-committal about how much the transfers should be raised.

At a post-meeting news conference, Kenney said he understands that historically federal governments limited transfers to big-spending provinces. However, Alberta has made “tough decisions” and is in a difficult financial position due to the oil price collapse.

Meanwhile, the pandemic caused already long surgical wait times to get worse, Kenney told reporters.

The emphasis on surgical backlogs came on the same day right-wing think tank released a public policy brief that found 16,893 surgeries in Alberta have been postponed due to the pandemic.

At a separate media event, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Alberta was operating at 40 per cent of its surgical capacity last spring but has since recovered to 90 per cent capacity.

Following the pandemic, UCP will ramp up surgical capacity by 50 per cent, the health minister pledged.

“We’re still on track to make that commitment,” Shandro said.

Vaccine politics
Premier Kenney also weighed in on lagging vaccine deliveries from the federal government.

“I think it’s an embarrassment,” he said. “It’s unacceptable.”

On the possibility of provinces going it alone to purchase vaccines from the U.S., the premier told reporters Alberta’s legal team already looked into it and determined the federal government has total regulatory control over international vaccine procurement.

Moving forward, the provincial leaders stressed the need to build national vaccine production capacity and keep up PPE manufacturing in the event of a future pandemic.