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Trudeau's admission that the health care system is 'broken' should be a catalyst for reform

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Year-end interviews with politicians are often chewy affairs. Leaders tend to choose friendly reporters and sit down for fireside chats where they congratulate themselves on their accomplishments during the year and make big promises for the new year. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s year-end interview with Rosemary Barton on the CBC was an exception and surprised on two counts.

First, Barton asked pointed questions and didn’t let the prime minister get away with short answers. She asked for tough follow-ups and asked Trudeau to expand on his answers. Barton has been accused of being soft on the Liberal Party, but it wasn’t evident in the interview.

Second, Trudeau made a rather startling statement about the Canadian healthcare system.

Pressed by Barton on his reluctance to increase health care transfers to the provinces, Trudeau said: “If I were to send people all the money they need in the provinces, there is no guarantee that people would wait less long in hospitals. .. There is no point putting more money into a failing system.

Canada’s healthcare system has long been considered a sacred cow. We have woven the system into our national identity and we have claimed that it is one of the best systems in the world. Politicians who propose solutions to health care challenges beyond increasing funding for the system are generally chastised and accused of wanting to Americanize Canada’s hallowed system.

To say that Canada’s health care system is broken is nothing short of political blasphemy, and it was shocking to see Trudeau make such a bold statement.

It has become increasingly difficult to defend Canada’s health care system, even for the staunchest supporters of the status quo. The Canadian system has been showing cracks for years, despite rising spending and pressures from Covid-19 pandemic revealed how weak the system really is. Now that the pandemic is behind us, hospitals are still overwhelmed with flu outbreaks that should be easily manageable, and waiting lists for treatments and procedures continue to grow.

Canada ranks near the bottom of the list of OECD nations for hospital capacity with 2.5 beds per thousand, which is about half of the average bed availability. Wait times for treatment have increased by 195% from 1993 levels (when the wait was 9.3 weeks) to an average of 27.4 weeks in 2022. No one can look at that kind of wait time and claim that the trend is acceptable or even humane.

The only measure of health care on which Canada ranks first among OECD countries is expenditure. Canada spends 12.9% of its GDP on health care, while the OECD average is 9.7%.

When increased expense only results in decreased performance, it becomes so undeniable that the system itself is flawed. The first step to fixing the Canadian system is to admit that it is broken, and it is heartening to see the Prime Minister doing that.

The big question now is how does the Prime Minister plan to solve this problem?

When Trudeau implies that any increase in federal health care transfers to the provinces will be conditional on improving outcomes, is he calling on premiers to implement systemic reforms or is he referring to a direct federal interference in provincial jurisdiction over health care delivery?

A common denominator among OECD countries whose health care systems outperform Canada is an increased level of private sector involvement. Private hospitals and mixed private/public insurance schemes are common in many European and Asian countries offering universal coverage. Mixed systems have allowed countries to be more creative with health care systems and provide them with more flexibility in the face of unusual events such as pandemics. Countries with private delivery options have been more successful in attracting and retaining healthcare professionals, while Canada’s rigid system is losing skilled workers at an unsustainable rate.

Canada’s prime ministers should take Trudeau’s statements as an invitation to embrace some aspects of the world’s most successful universal health care models. How can the Prime Minister oppose increasing health care benefits or private insurance schemes when they are proven to improve systemic performance? Isn’t that precisely the condition he imposed on prime ministers for the increase in transfers?

Justin Trudeau needs a tangible legacy for his term. Being the first Prime Minister to comprehensively reform the Canada Health Act in generations would certainly make him an innovative national leader. Is that what he is talking about when he says the system is broken?

Trudeau’s statement did not receive as much attention as it should have. Nonetheless, it has opened the door for the nation to begin in earnest to reform its dysfunctional healthcare system. Hopefully the provincial leaders of Canada will ensure that it follows through.

The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Epoch Times.

corey morgan

Cory Morgan is a Calgary-based columnist.