Opinion

BC Patients Will Feel the Pain of Federal Health Cuts, MSP Slashes

Clark’s Liberals don’t seem to have a plan for recouping money lost in Trudeau health-care cuts.

By Bill Tieleman 7 Mar 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. Email him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

“Well it's not as much as we wanted, Bill, to be really blunt about it.” — B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong on federal health funding

New federal government health-care funding cuts will make the BC Liberals’ centerpiece campaign promise — to reduce and then eliminate Medical Services Plan premiums — extremely unlikely without either pain for patients or new tax increases or both.

Those straightforward economics deeply impact B.C. election politics, because Premier Christy Clark pledges to cut MSP premiums in half for two million British Columbians in January 2018, if re-elected in May — and eliminate them altogether at some undetermined date.

But can Clark’s biggest election promise be believed when it’s seriously undermined by Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s dramatic health-care funding reductions to the provinces, started by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper?

Harper cut the annual increase in Canada Health Transfer money to the provinces from the six per cent in place since 2005 to just three per cent from 2017 on (or the percentage increase of nominal gross domestic product averaged over the preceding three years, whichever is higher).

B.C. got $4.7 billion in health funding from Ottawa in the last fiscal year while the Health Ministry budget was $18 billion — so federal money is over 25 per cent of revenue.

Trudeau disdained Harper’s plan during the 2015 election, promising to come to a new negotiated agreement with the provinces, saying: “Harper has refused to discuss the future of our health-care system. In fact, he has refused to sit down with the provinces to talk about it. Instead, he has worked unilaterally to undermine it.”

But now in office, the federal Liberals are following the Conservative plan after joint negotiations with the provinces and territories collapsed in December — with some additional home care and mental health funding being negotiated individually with the provinces, including B.C., but Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta are still without deals.

While health-care funding policy may seem bureaucratic if not boring, the consequences are anything but.

In Port Moody, senior Jean Donaldson was left for 36 hours in the Eagle Ridge Hospital lobby outside the gift shop on a stretcher in January while waiting for care for bleeding in the brain.

And insult was added to injury: “This is ironic — I was lying under plaques that list people’s lifetime contributions to Eagle Ridge Hospital — and I was lying right under my name,” Donaldson said, according to a Global News report. “I’m angry at the provincial government. I’m angry that there isn’t funding for hospitals.”

“I’m not on Christy Clark’s radar. I don’t think she cares about people like me. I’m not sure she cares about this situation,” Donaldson said.

Donaldson’s plight can only get worse because despite the provinces and territories originally strongly vowing to fight the federal government’s funding reductions, one by one they have cut deals with the Trudeau Liberals to get some home care and other funding that increases overall federal health transfers above the three per cent level but well below the six per cent they previously were receiving.

B.C. is the latest province to fold its cards and capitulate, settling for about a 4.4 per cent increase that includes money for home care, mental health and drug overdose prevention.

But when the federal-provincial negotiations fell apart last December, de Jong was visibly upset.

“I think potentially it’s a real point of departure for the relationship between Prime Minister Trudeau and the federal government and the provinces but I, and we, haven’t given up,” de Jong said then. “Some of the language that we heard today is certainly reminiscent of the unilateralism that we heard on this issue from the previous [Conservative] federal government.”

And de Jong went further, saying the Trudeau Liberals — not organizationally connected to the BC Liberals — were trying to reduce the federal health-care funding role, but: “This just didn’t pass the smell test.”

So at the B.C. budget lockup news conference in February, I asked de Jong whether B.C.’s deal was due to the impending provincial election and whether he was still unhappy with the federal funding level.

"Well it's not as much as we wanted, Bill, to be really blunt about it,” de Jong said in front of both media and stakeholders from business, labour and non-profits. “We thought we could make a compelling case. We enjoyed marginal success in convincing the federal government to adjust slightly what was on the table but not to the degree that we were hoping for.

"At the end of the day it became clear there was not going to be movement from the federal government and so we decided purposefully last week to finalize an agreement, the results of which will appear in the next quarterly update, whoever presents it, and we will continue to work with the federal government not just on health care but on other issues as well."

So — no answer on the election question but obviously de Jong is dissatisfied with the federal Liberals calling the provinces’ bluffs on hanging tough and forcing them to surrender.

I followed up that question with another about how B.C. not receiving the six per cent annual increases in health-care funding would cost it hundreds of millions of dollars and negatively impact Clark’s plan to reduce and then eliminate MSP premiums.

Cutting MSP premiums alone will cost the B.C. government $1 billion a year in lost premium revenue, budget documents show.

Again, de Jong dodged a direct answer but didn’t deny it.

"Well, I think the question is probably broader than that. To the degree that we can realize more revenue from any source, our ability to return that revenue via increased reductions or expanded reductions to the MSP improves,” de Jong responded. “So again, the clearest response I can give you it that we hoped to do better at the end of the day with the federal government. At the end of the day we concluded this was the best deal we were going to secure."

But the deal the BC Liberals have made means a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars — so either they will have to cut health-care costs or find a new tax revenue source — neither of which Clark will talk about before the May 9 election.  [Tyee]

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