Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me in my capacity as Minister of Health to address the House in the course of the debate on the Speech from the Throne.
Before doing anything else, Mr. Speaker, may I extend my warmest congratulations to you on your appointment. Your appointment as Deputy Speaker reflects the respect in which you are held on all sides of the House. Members are confident that you will preside in a way that is both fair and appropriate.
May I also say, as this is the first opportunity I have had to speak in the House since the election, how grateful I am to the voters of Etobicoke Centre for, on a second occasion, affording me the privilege to represent their interests in the Parliament of Canada. May I reaffirm to the voters of my riding of Etobicoke Centre my solemn commitment to devote all of my energies to their service in the coming years.
The Speech from the Throne made clear that one of the three main priorities of the government in the current mandate is going to be health and health policy. I welcome the opportunity this morning to elaborate on our plans and on our objectives.
All members know that medicare represents an extraordinary Canadian achievement. It is an asset, both social and economic, of singular value. It not only provides equality of access to Canadians across the country to health care, it also embodies and reflects shared Canadian values of compassion, of sharing and of equality. It is an institution in which Canadians take great pride.
It must also be said that in recent years medicare has become a source of increasing anxiety among Canadians. Canadians worry about whether it is going to be there to provide access to the highest possible quality of health care as and when that care is needed.
The source of this anxiety, among other things, are the cuts in spending by all levels of government, and the necessary restructuring that the delivery of health care services has gone through in recent years.
The fact remains that the growing concern among Canadians about the future of health care and about medicare must be addressed because we cannot take the overwhelming support for the public health care system for granted. Canadians overwhelmingly support the single payer publicly financed system of providing health services across Canada.
That support comes at a price. It is part of a bargain between the Canadian people and their government. Our part of the bargain, if we are to retain that support, is that we along with the professionals who are the health care providers and in partnership with the provinces who deliver the services, must ensure that Canadians will have access to the highest quality possible in health care as and when it is needed. If we let down our part of that bargain we shall lose the support of Canadians for the publicly financed single payer medicare system.
Most of the levers that influence the quality and access of medicare are in the hands of the provinces because they actually deliver the services. But there are important ways in which the federal government can assist as well. It is to those federal contributions that we will direct our attention and on which we will focus our efforts.
The first obvious way we can help is by ensuring that the principles set out in the Canada Health Act are respected. Those principles do not just reflect the priorities of the minister or his department, they express the choices of Canadians.
As well, they reflect the position of this government and its party, the same party which inaugurated health insurance some years ago. Those same principles are still the object of strong Canadian consensus today.
We will continue to enforce the principles of the Canada Health Act, not out of devotion to stale ideology or some dated catechism but because the Canada Health Act and the public system of health insurance which it provides remains the best approach to health care for Canadians.
I want to make clear that I see the federal role in health care as something more than just the enforcer of the principles in the statute. We have a very positive role to play as well.
This morning let me touch briefly on three ways in which I believe the federal government can contribute positively and constructively toward restoring the confidence of Canadians in the quality of and access to health care.
The first thing we can do is to stabilize federal transfer levels at appropriate amounts. That we have undertaken to do. Commencing next year and for five years the cash portion of the transfer to the provinces will be stabilized at $12.5 billion annually, exactly the amount recommended by the National Forum on Health, a blue ribbon panel that spent two years closely examining medicare, its financing and its needs.
The prime minister has already committed the government as surpluses become available to investing one-half of any future surplus in social programs where need can be shown, and health will be among the first priorities for that spending.
The second way the federal government can help in restoring the confidence of Canadians in the quality of and access to health care is by encouraging innovation. This we have started to do with the creation of the health transition fund. In partnership with the provinces we will invest $150 million over the next three years. That effort, which we undertake in common, will underwrite our efforts to develop more knowledge about four aspects of innovation in particular.
First of all, by reorganizing primary care. Second, by improving the integration of medical services so that family physicians, specialists and other health professionals may work together more effectively.
Third, by finding out how the delivery, organization and funding of home care can be improved and, finally, by exploring various formulas for financial support and a potential drug plan.
The federal and provincial governments will be able to access a wealth of information through investments in the Health Transition Fund, particularly where innovations to improve the quality and accessibility of health care are concerned. >
The third way that the federal government can contribute directly toward assuring continued quality and access to health care is by leading and co-ordinating efforts to establish a national integrated system of medical information, cutting through the walls that now separate the separate information systems maintained from place to place around the country. Only with such an integrated, comprehensive system will we enable health care providers, administrators and governments to make evidence based decisions about the management and the delivery of health care.
In all of this let me assure the House that our objective as a government will be not only to maintain medicare but to preserve it. Our objective will be to achieve in the provision of its services a standard of excellence. Canadians deserve nothing less.
Apart from medicare there are other subjects of importance that will preoccupy the government during the current mandate. We will continue in a wide variety of ways to promote and protect the health and safety of Canadians.
I can report to the House that over the summer considerable progress was made, for example, in partnership with provincial ministers and with the advice of consumer groups toward the creation of a new national blood agency, an agency that will be put in place in keeping with principles of accountability and safety, learning from the tragic lessons of the past and based on a format designed for the future.
I can say as well that we are committed to excellence in medical research. Through the Foundation for Innovation we are providing ways in which research infrastructure can be made available. Through the Medical Research Council we are seeing to it that peer review awards are made available for those who have inquiring minds and who are looking for the treatments, the cures and the technologies of tomorrow. Through the National Network of Centres for Excellence, now with permanent status and stabilized funding we are encouraging research at our universities so that we can truly say that Canada is at the leading edge of new ideas.
May I also say that we intend to be vigilant in our surveillance and in our regulations to protect Canadians from threats to their food and to the environment. The health protection branch will continue to fulfil its responsibilities in this regard. Last week I announced that we are undertaking a broad and very public re-evaluation of the way in which the health protection branch does its job. We will soon publish a consultation document that will sketch out alternative approaches to the fulfilment of its mandate. Our effort at every stage will be to ensure that it is there to protect the safety of Canadians.
During the period of consultation, funding to the Health Protection Branch will be maintained, until the outcome of the analysis is known. Shortly, I will be announcing the creation of a scientific advisory committee comprised of Canadians well known and respected in their fields, whose wise advice and comments will assist the Health Protection Branch in fulfilling its responsibilities better.
Finally, we will focus as always on the determinants of health because the best way to ensure that we have sufficient supply of health care is to reduce demand. By focusing on the determinants of health, whether through diet or proper amount of exercise or lifestyle choices, we are ensuring that Canadians of all ages will preserve their health and will not need the health care system.
Before closing let me touch on a separate but related issue, Canada's children. By reason of my office I serve as chair as the national children's agenda. The plight of Canada's children is a shared responsibility of all levels of government. It has now been identified as a priority both by the federal government and by the premiers who, in a recent annual meeting, reaffirmed that doing something about the level of poverty among Canada's children is a priority for provincial governments.
It is often said that children are our most precious asset. We must remember that they are our foremost responsibility. Child poverty is now at such levels in this country, and of such duration, that it threatens to create two tiered citizenship. We all know the appalling numbers. One in five Canadian children lives in poverty. Forty percent of today's welfare recipients are children. We all know as well that a childhood spent in poverty makes it far more likely that child will have difficulty in school, will have problems with physical and mental health and is more likely to become involved in the criminal justice and correction system. Nowhere is the challenge greater than in the aboriginal communities of this country.
Canadians and this government cannot tolerate this problem in its present state. It not only makes good economic and social sense to do something about it but it is also a moral imperative.
My colleague, the Minister of Human Resources Development, in the last year of the last mandate made a significant contribution to this effort by negotiating with his provincial counterparts the Canada child tax benefit, an investment of some $850 million by the Government of Canada toward those who need it most.
We have undertaken to at least double that investment as soon as resources permit. Apart from the family income side of the equation there is more that the government can and will do. The national children's agenda itself will provide us with an opportunity to integrate the efforts being made now sometimes on a fragmented basis by the federal and the provincial governments to ensure that we are getting the most out of each dollar spent toward helping children, to target those who are most in need and to avoid duplication and overlap and, as said in the throne speech, to measure the results of our efforts by looking at outcomes such as a child's readiness to learn when they reach school age.
The focus of our work will be on investing more, more wisely and in a more integrated way, for example in the Canada prenatal nutrition program, focusing on early intervention, attention to children at the preschool age, learning from the research of Dr. Fraser Mustard, Dr. Dan Offord and others who have spoken so wisely in identifying the early years of life as the most important as a precursor of an individual's success in the future.
We will reinvest in the community action program for children, a remarkable Canadian success story, a success that cuts across lines of government, that combines the efforts of the Government of Canada with the governments of provinces and indeed with people in communities to serve the needs of children.
Every day of every week in 700 projects in over 500 communities across the country, 7,500 volunteer hours per week are devoted to these projects that are intended to ensure that children have a hot meal in the morning before they go to school, that they are protected from abuse, prepared to learn and that they get the kind of guidance they need in their earliest years.
We shall also establish a network of centres of excellence for children to encourage and to bring together research about children's needs so that we might know better how to help. We shall invest in the creation of the head start program on reserves so that aboriginal children on reserves might have benefits that have been extended to others in the urban environment.
Let me close by saying that all of these are but examples of things that must be done in the health portfolio in the coming years. Progress can be made and must be made toward the objectives that I have described if we are to sustain and to strengthen the high quality of health care of which we have all become proud in this country.
It will not be easy, but it seems to me that this House, this government is up to the challenge. Indeed, Canadians are up to the challenge.
It is fitting that a Liberal government will lead the way. The Liberals tamed the deficit that so constrained government action just four years ago. The Liberal Party put medicare in place three decades ago and it will be we as Liberals who will reinvest in the priorities of the Canadian people. When Liberals are faced with challenges they do not simply throw up their hands. They roll up their sleeves and get the job done.
Liberals do not seek to avoid tough choices, we face them head on. If we meet this challenge, if we restore the confidence of Canadians in the public system of health care, if we ensure that our part of the public bargain is kept then we will have achieved what I believe is within our grasp, the achievement of a generation.
Together we must get on with this job because quite simply we have an inheritance to honour and a legacy to leave.