Budget doesn’t address lessons learned during the pandemic, health groups say

OTTAWA—After a pandemic that has left Canada’s health-care system buckling under the strain of staffing shortages and surgical backlogs, Thursday’s federal budget drew criticism from health groups, while committing billions to a national dental plan.

Dental care, a pillar of the governing agreement struck between the Liberals and New Democrats two weeks ago, emerged as the centrepiece of the federal government’s health-care spending. The government committed $5.3 billion over the next five years to launch the national program.

But urgency around the plight facing health-care workers in this country was absent from the budget, experts said.

“The big miss in this budget was providing care for Canadians. Everything from health care to long-term care to home care is in crisis,” said Armine Yalnizyan, an economist and an Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers. “There’s just no reference to the people that provide the care that are burning out and dropping out.”

The Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) has argued that COVID-19 exacerbated long-standing issues already slamming the health-care system. According to Statistics Canada, 70 per cent of health-care workers reported their mental health worsened during the public health crisis, with about 32,000 regulated nurse positions needing to be filled.

The federal government has estimated that the pandemic delayed approximately 700,000 surgeries and other medical procedures, leading to wait-lists and backlogs for medical care.

CFNU president Linda Silas said the budget largely ignores health-care workers, something she said came as a “surprise” given assurances from Ottawa that retaining and recruiting talent is a priority.

“We’ve been having meetings with every politician of every stripe, at every level of government, and everyone understands that we’re dealing with a health human resource crisis in this country,” Silas told the Star. “Those words and actions weren’t part of budget 2022.”

The budget also doesn’t offer additional top-ups in health-care transfer payments to provinces and territories.

The document instead repeats the commitment of a one-time top-up of $2 billion to the Canada Health Transfer to clear surgical backlogs. That falls short of the $6 billion the Liberals promised in their election platform to “immediately invest” in eliminating health system wait-lists.

Premiers have repeatedly called on Ottawa to increase its share of health-care costs from 22 per cent to 35 per cent — an additional $28 billion per year — with no strings attached.

The budget primarily addresses the crisis facing health-care workers by pledging $26.2 million over four years, starting in 2023, to increase the amount of forgivable student loans by 50 per cent. That would result in up to $30,000 in loan forgiveness for nurses and up to $60,000 for doctors working in rural or remote communities.

There is also a promise to give $115 million over five years to Canada’s foreign credential recognition program to allow up to 11,000 health-care professionals trained abroad to find work here.

Canadian Medical Association president Dr. Katharine Smart said Thursday’s budget signals that Ottawa has similar priorities to the health sector, “but it’s very clear that much, much more needs to be done to actually bring about that change, and the deep investments that are going to be needed.”

The Mental Health Commission of Canada, meanwhile, had hoped to see movement on the Liberals’$4.5 billion campaign pledge to set up permanent transfer payments to the provinces and territories for mental health.

“We’re really facing at this point a parallel pandemic … of mental health problems,” said Michel Rodrigue, president of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. “I think those transfers will be critically important to help us address those moving forward.”

The Liberal-NDP commitment to dental care accounted for the majority of health spending in the budget, starting with $300 million in funding in 2022-2023 and ramping up to $1.7 billion in five years, when the program is expected to be fully implemented.

The budget confirmed that the money will first go toward launching the program this year for children aged 12 and under from families earning less than $90,000 per year.

A national pharmacare program, the other central health-care feature in the Liberal-NDP pact, did not surface in this year’s budget.

RP

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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