Opinion: B.C. angles for bigger share of fed health dollars

It comes as no surprise that our country’s premiers apparently see the pandemic as the perfect time to put the touch on the federal government when it comes to tackling the biggest consumer of tax dollars within all their own budgets.

That would be health care, of course.

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Total costs are approaching $300 billion a year and are growing at an annual rate of more than 4%.

This steady, sustained climb has been happening for some time and it is escalating in this COVID-19 pandemic. B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix recently added $1.6 billion to the province’s health-care budget in response to added cost pressures brought on by the pandemic.

Dix is poised to hire more than 7,000 health-care workers and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on equipment, research, lab tests and such.

Collectively, the premiers are calling on Ottawa to fork over $28 billion more to the provinces. Such a move would bring the federal government’s share of total funding to $70 billion, or to 35% of the entire pie, up from the current 22%.

For years, the provinces have complained about the federal government’s gradual retreat from covering those large, annual increases in health-care costs. The retreat began in the 1990s as the then-Liberal government tried to tame its deficit demons and cut health-care transfers to the provinces.

The situation improved somewhat with the arrival of the Canada Health Accord in 2004 that guaranteed annual increases to the provinces in the neighborhood of six per cent a year.

In 2011, the Harper government announced it would lower that increase to 3% or the rate of economic growth, whichever figure was higher.

The Trudeau government has further boosted funding, but the premiers say the pandemic has greatly changed the goalposts and so are demanding a significant increase.

They want a no-strings-attached to the Canada Health Transfer. Some provinces have different priorities than others when it comes to health care spending and they want the freedom to spend the money as they see fit.

It should be noted that the Trudeau government has already committed $19 billion to the provinces for such health-care measures as increased testing and contact tracing, but clearly that is not enough from the premiers’ point of view.

On the one hand, a request for $28 billion more might seem outlandish and unrealistic. But on the other hand, it has never been easier to get money from government than in the current pandemic climate.

As I noted in this space last week, worries about governments running up huge deficits have been kicked to the curb, at least for a while.

Federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc has said the prime minister has already promised to speak with the premiers sometime this fall about increasing the health care transfer.

I have to wonder whether Trudeau saw that $28 billion figure coming when he made that pledge, however.

Still in these times of extraordinary responses required by all governments to deal with this pandemic, perhaps the premiers have sensed this is the perfect time to make their pitch. It certainly can’t hurt.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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