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Saskatchewan, Ottawa reach health-funding deal despite province's concerns

Saskatchewan, Ottawa reach health deal

REGINA — The united front that provinces wanted in negotiating a national health-funding deal with Ottawa weakened Tuesday when Saskatchewan struck an agreement with the federal government.

The deal holds the health transfer increase to either three per cent or the three-year moving average of nominal GDP growth — whichever is higher.

It also includes an additional $348.8 million over 10 years for investments in home and mental-health care for Saskatchewan. The federal government says it expects mental-health services for children and youth will be improved and the number of hospital patients who could be better cared for at home or in the community will be reduced.

Saskatchewan Health Minister Jim Reiter suggested there wasn't much choice but to sign the deal.

"The federal government made it very clear that they weren't going to have a first ministers meeting on this and that they weren't going to budge off those numbers," Reiter said at the legislature.

"There's some very significant stresses in mental-health and home care in this province, and we thought it was time to get on with the work."

Late last year, the federal government offered to increase health transfer payments by 3.5 per cent annually and fork out another $11.5 billion over 10 years in targeted funding, primarily for home care and mental health.

The provinces and territories rejected the offer, which Ottawa said was only on the table for one day.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said the provinces were hoping to pressure the federal government into increasing the annual health transfer at a rate of at least 5.2 per cent each year.

Almost immediately after the offer was rejected, New Brunswick signalled that it would negotiate a bilateral deal.

At the time, Quebec Health Minister Gaetan Barrette said the New Brunswick move reduced the chances of a pan-Canadian agreement.

British Columbia Health Minister Terry Lake said Ottawa was taking a "divide and conquer" approach and B.C. would not negotiate a separate deal.

Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia have since reached deals. So have the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon.

"I think that united front went by the wayside long before our announcement today," said Reiter.

Saskatchewan's deal would improve if any other jurisdiction were to reach an agreement with better financial terms.

Reiter also announced that Ottawa is letting Saskatchewan continue with private MRI scans — at least for one year.

Saskatchewan's legislation allows MRIs paid for privately as long as the clinic does a second scan at no charge for a patient on the public wait list.

"It's a year to prove that it works, that it conforms to the Canada Health Act," said Reiter.

Reiter has said the policy led to 2,200 MRI scans — all provided at no cost to the taxpayer — and that 1,100 people have been taken off the wait list.

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said last fall that the plan was bad policy, bad medicine and violated the Canada Health Act. She told Saskatchewan to stop or risk losing health-care funding.

"As Minister Philpott has previously stated, our government fully supports the principles of the Canada Health Act, which are meant to ensure that Canadians have reasonable access to doctors and hospitals based on medical need and not the ability or willingness to pay," a spokesman for Philpott's office said in an email late Tuesday.

"Minister Philpott is committed to working with Saskatchewan to strengthen our publicly funded, universal health care system, while at the same time upholding the principles of the Act, and has asked officials to work with Saskatchewan officials over the next year in this regard."

The Canadian Health Coalition said Tuesday that it's disappointed Philpott has backed down to get a bilateral funding deal done.

"This will absolutely hurt patients who can't afford to pay," said Adrienne Silnicki, national co-ordinator of the Canadian Health Coalition.

"Previous experiments with private MRIs in Canada ended because patients were not receiving high-quality images or equal access to care."

Jennifer Graham, The Canadian Press