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ATAMANENKO: Time for federal leadership on health care

Across our country, no other public social service is cherished as much as our healthcare system and its underlying principles set in the Canada Health Act. Canadians appreciate knowing that whatever health problem they have, help is available to them, regardless of their ability to pay.

But our system is not perfect. There are still improvements needed to ensure Canadians get proper value for money and at the rate at which costs are increasing, the current status quo is not sustainable.

We need to start building the next generation of health care in our country. We need to look at how we can control costs and move forward on many of the reforms included in the Romanow Report and the 2003-2004 Health Accords to improve our system.

While many of the tools for improving service delivery are under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, the federal government also has a key role to play in providing proper leadership. Unfortunately, this is not the direction this government is taking. After failing miserably at implementing the commitments in the 2003-2004 Health Accords, Stephen Harper recently put forward a plan to unilaterally reduce the federal contribution to healthcare. At a time when the differences between provincial health care systems in Canada are growing, federal leadership is required now more than ever.

During the recent Premiers’ conference on health care sustainability held in Victoria, the NDP held its own event to hear from key health care advocates and researchers. We received the same message from the Premiers and citizens alike: don’t privatize healthcare; continue to expand it in innovative ways.

While some say that more privatization is needed to control costs in healthcare, evidence points to the contrary. While total spending on health care has grown from about 7% of GDP to around 12% today, that number hides that the components covered by Medicare have remained between 4 and 5% of GDP since the mid ‘70s, while the other components not covered by Medicare has grown from 3% to 7% of GDP. Public delivery has been an important cost container. Therefore, a sustainable health care system delivering quality healthcare services should rely on more, not less, public coverage.

There are three key areas outlined in the Health Accords that we should immediately start with: better drug coverage, home care, and primary care reform.

Over the past 10 years, prescription costs have increased at a rate of 10% per year. The 2004 Health Accord included a pharmaceutical strategy aimed at reducing the cost of medications.  Such a plan would not only save our health care system billions of dollars each year, it would also help Canadians have better access to more effective drugs.

We also need to adjust to the 21st century reality of offering more services in the community.  For example, new healthcare delivery models such as home care and palliative care have proven to be less expensive than hospital beds.   Establishing a comprehensive care strategy will save costs in the long-run and improve the health of millions.

Finally, primary health care reform is the key to efficient and cost-effective use of health care resources.  It would lower costs while supporting timely access to health care services, particularly for the delivery to remote and rural Canadians and Aboriginal people.

What our healthcare system needs today is leadership to put in place the much needed reforms that have been talked about for over a decade. The provinces want a federal partner that’s committed to improving Medicare, who seeks accountability by linking spending to clear health care improvements. The hands-off approach of the Conservative government simply does not work.

Alex Atamanenko is the MP for BC Southern Interior.