Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion on the issue of the health care wait times and to the record of the government in this regard.
I want to thank my colleague, the member for Brampton—Springdale, for bringing this motion forward and for the passionate work that she brings to the health care file.
Health care remains one of the most important concerns of Canadians. Certainly, in my riding of Dartmouth—Cole Harbour it is a big issue and it continues to be. We are very fortunate in my riding to have a wonderful community hospital, the Dartmouth General Hospital, which I think is one of the best hospitals in the country, but it has felt the funding stresses and pressures of the health care system. That is an issue.
My riding also has some of the very great nurses and doctors in Canada. Jake O'Connor is the former Family Physician of the Year. Louise Cloutier is the president of the Canadian Medical Association. They have both appeared at forums that I have held in my community, open forums, inviting people to come in and talk about health care and about population health, health promotion. The previous member spoke to that as well.
I think it is one of the most important concerns of Canadians. It is one of those things that defines Canada, and yet is a source of ongoing debate. Perhaps only health care and the Constitution, as we saw last night, are subjects of such similar discussion, argument and interest in Canada.
In the last election the Conservatives put forward a number of proposals that they intended to provide Canadians. They reinforced these after the election as the five key priorities of the government.
One of them was to promise the GST cut. No legitimate economist in the country has suggested this makes any sense. It is a cut that disproportionately benefits the wealthy, does virtually nothing for the poor and takes $6 billion out of the economy, out of the spending power of the federal government. It robs the government of $6 billion that could be used to better serve Canadians, to increase the basic personal exemption, to perhaps increase the Canada child tax benefit, maybe even to reduce taxes or redress the health care needs of Canadians.
The Conservatives dismantled the national child care agreement, a move based on narrow ideology, one that hurts Canadians and one, I would suggest, that adds to ill health and does nothing to help the health of Canadians.
The federal accountability act, another one of their promises, has been riddled with problems.
Today we can add health care as a key area of concern of the government since January.
Let me look back at the previous government's efforts in the area of health care to provide some context. Just two years ago, the former prime minister, the member for LaSalle—Émard, met with the premiers and signed a historic agreement on health care in Canada.
In 2004 the federal government and the premiers agreed to a solution, resulting in billions of new dollars to the health care system over 10 years. Among the key parts, one of the things that was recognized in the agreement, was the federal government identified issues such as stable, predictable, long term funding and the provinces agreed. The provinces agreed to work together with the federal government to create home care and to develop a national strategy for prescription drug care. They also agreed the Canada Health Act would be respected and they would work on a national waiting times reduction strategy, which was identified as the number one health concern.
Specifically, the agreement signed by the previous Liberal government called for a $16 billion five year health reform fund for primary care, home care and catastrophic drug coverage; $13.5 billion in new federal funding to the provinces over three years; a $2.5 billion cash infusion; $600 million for information technical; and $500 million additional for research. Some $41 billion were committed to making health care more efficient and providing the provinces with the resources to fix health care for a generation.
The 2004 agreement focused on a national wait times strategy, a strategy with five key areas: cancer, cardiac treatment, diagnostic tests such as MRIs, joint replacements and cataract surgeries. As well, the agreement provided a deadline. The people to whom I spoke, whether it be the doctors in my community, like Dr. O'Connor, Dr. Cloutier and others, said that it was so important to get some wait times guarantees, but critically important was that we established benchmarks for wait times.
On December 12, 2005, provinces and territories set out the wait times benchmarks for five key areas: cancer, cardiac, sight restoration, joint replacement and diagnostic imaging.
Despite what we often hear in the House and the spin from the other parties, the previous Liberal government has nothing to be ashamed about on its record on health care, in spite of the enormous challenges that were presented. When we cleaned up the financial mess left to us by the Mulroney Conservatives, we invested in health care. We could only do so because the fiscal house was in order.
I have some other highlights of what our previous government did on health care.
In budget 2005 the Liberal government allocated another $5.5 billion over 10 years under the wait times reduction fund to assist the provinces and territories in reducing wait times.
In July 2005 the Liberal government announced the appointment of Dr. Brian Postl as the new federal adviser on wait times. He is working with federal, provincial and territorial governments to achieve commitments made in the 10 year plan. As a result of the 10 year plan, we were seeing some success in Canada.
In B.C. the median wait time for starting cancer radiation is less than a week. In Alberta the number of people waiting for open heart surgery has declined by 55% in two years. In Saskatchewan the Saskatoon health region's waiting list for MRI tests has been cut almost in half. In Quebec the number of patients awaiting cataract surgery has been significantly reduced by redistributing the surgeries to a much smaller number of facilities. In Ontario funding for an additional 42,000 medical procedures has been allocated under the province's wait times strategy.
That took us to the 2006 election. The Liberal government promised then that it would implement a Canada health care guarantee to ensure that Canadians had timely access to care. Included in that guarantee was a $75 million health care guarantee fund to assist patients and family members with travel and accommodation costs to a public facility in another province for quicker access to necessary medical procedures.
There were $300 million for regional centres of specialized care in university teaching hospital and $50 million for the Canada Health Infoway to accelerate wait list management technologies such as registries, booking systems and electronic health records.
That speaks to the initiatives of the previous government.
I will talk about an area of public health that is particularly interesting to me. When I contemplated running, one of the issues I made as part of my campaign was the issue of population health and healthy living health promotion. How do we keep people healthy? How do we focus on keeping people well, especially children, instead of spending all our time and money when intervention is required.
In truth, some say and I agree, that we do not have a health system, we have a sickness system. Our long term salvation is to turn it into a health care system. In fact, upon my election in 2004, it was for that among other reasons that I requested to be on the health committee.
Some steps are being taken. There is some very positive news. The creation of Canada's Public Health Agency, under the leadership of Dr. David Butler-Jones, is an important first step. As well as a focus on public health, SARS, West Nile et cetera, this agency has a mandate to improve the overall population health of Canadians. As well, the Public Health Agency is doing more research that looks at things like population health, health systems, demographic and regional issues in health.
This is particularly important to me, coming from Atlantic Canada. Outside of our aboriginal communities, which probably suffer the most from chronic disease, Atlantic Canada is next on the list in suffering from chronic disease.
Another very important step forward was the establishment of the CIHR, which has been a tremendously important move forward. It has paid dividends all across Canada, particularly in Atlantic Canada. In Atlantic Canada researchers, like Renee Lyons and Judy Guernsey, have done excellent research, focusing on areas like rural health, women's health and even health in Atlantic Canada and the particular challenges that it faces. I certainly hope that CIHR gets the increased funding, which it needs.
My Government of Nova Scotia was the first province in the country to develop and implement a department of health promotion. It has come forward with some very successful initiatives. I compliment Dr. Hamm, the former Progressive Conservative premier of Nova Scotia, for the work that he has done in this area. Healthy living and kids activities in schools have all been initiatives started in the department of health promotion in Nova Scotia.
We have other allies as well in the not for profit health sector. My own involvement with the Heart and Stroke Foundation over 10 or 12 years has showed me first-hand how much work it and other health charities can do. They are allies and I would suggest even leaders in healthy living.
In the long term, our seriousness in addressing chronic disease prevention will determine how well we can sustain our precious public health care system.
Another area that I think we need to put more time into across Canada is the issue of what causes illness. We know that poverty is number one in the incidence of poor health. Too many Canadians are living in poverty, and when we cut literacy programs, when we cut the social economy and when we cut the great organizations that work in mental health and the boys' and girls' clubs, we make it harder for Canadians to achieve good health, not easier.
Another key for me, and this is one I learned at first hand, is to better treat patients who have had a medical intervention. This means we need better home care, better palliative care, better pharmaceuticals, et cetera.
I had the circumstance in my life of having both of my parents die of cancer three and a half years ago. It was a sad time, obviously, for our family and our friends, but it was made much easier by the fact that my two sisters, who were living in Toronto, moved back into the family home and provided full time care for my parents as they died. We were all there with them when they took their last breaths. Shelagh and Brigid left jobs and moved home and it made a very big difference.
We have a large family and we are not rich, but we had the resources to be able to do that. My parents died at home in comfortable surroundings, in a comfortable bed, looking out a window at a scene that they knew, with their family around them. I think that is very important. It was a sad time, but to have my parents die at home was a privilege.
However, it is a privilege that not all Canadians can actually share. We had great nurses and respite workers, but in my own province of Nova Scotia I know of a family with two children with autism. The parents were getting two hours a week respite. That was cut off because their income had gone over the level that they were allowed, and that was only because they saved every penny they had for when those kids were there and they were not.
The system is not working. It brings up a system of two tier health care, not only public-private but among provinces, rich provinces and poor provinces. I believe the federal government has a responsibility to act in that area. We need to do more there as well.
I believe that federally we need to take responsibility. A lot of these are provincial areas of direct responsibility, but the federal government has a role to ensure, as much as possible, equal access across Canada.
I do want to commend the government for the commitment to the Canadian strategy for cancer control. This is our initiative that came out of the cancer community from people who were working in cancer, people in Nova Scotia like Dr. Andrew Padmos, who has now left Cancer Care Nova Scotia, Theresa Marie Underhill, and researchers like Gerry Johnson.
Many people have come together to say that we can actually make a difference in cancer. We need to take it a little bit out, at arm's length of government, and work with research agencies, do better surveillance and identify what research we need. I was proud last year in this House to vote for the implementation of the Canadian strategy for cancer control. I commend the government for following through on that last week.
I want to take a look at the Conservative record on wait times. In spite of the fact that we have to do more on health promotion and also treat people after they have been ill, right now we have the current crisis in wait times. In the 2006 election, the Conservative government promised to implement the patient wait times guarantee to provide timely access to care for patients within clinically accepted waiting times or to enable them to be treated in another jurisdiction by another provider.
In budget 2006, the Conservative government basically reintroduced the Liberals' 10 year plan to strengthen health care, as well as the original $41 billion investment to assist provinces and territories to improve their respective health care systems. In budget 2006, the Conservative government also reintroduced the wait times reduction fund.
On this side of the House, we remain committed to a strengthened and renewed public health care system. We believe that through reduced wait times we can ensure that our system of health care remains sustainable for generations to come. Until the last election, significant achievements in honouring our commitments were, I believe, under way. We will continue to work to ensure that the commitments set out in the 10 year plan are honoured. We will accept nothing less on behalf of all Canadians and in the interests of protecting our public system of health care.
In the 2006 election campaign, the Conservatives promised a wait times guarantee of their own. I am going to quote directly, if I may, from the Conservative Party platform and a press release of December 2, almost exactly a year ago. The Prime Minister, the then Leader of the Opposition, indicated:
I am pleased to announce that one of the first acts of a new Conservative government will be to sit down with the provinces to develop a Patient Wait Times Guarantee...We will bring all governments back to the table, not to bicker about more money, but to set wait time targets across the country, and figure out a plan to begin meeting them. That process will begin immediately after the election, and conclude in 2006.
I find myself quoting Conservatives far too often recently, which I do not find particularly endearing, but I am using quotes from earlier this year to talk about inaction or reverse decisions, whether that be on accountability or income trusts.
That is what the Prime Minister said back then. If one says it and puts it on paper, one has to live up to it. That is the fact. No one has yet seen a plan put forth by the government.
Let us contrast that to the 2004 election. Health care was a big election item in 2004 and a big election issue in 2006. We had the election in June 2004. By the fall, we had the 10 year plan to strengthen health care, about which people like Gary Doer, premier of Manitoba, said it was a positive step. The premier of Saskatchewan, Lorne Calvert, said, “I believe that tonight, with the plan that we have signed, publicly-funded health care in Canada, not-for-profit health care, is on a more firm foundation...”. Then minister of health for Alberta Gary Mar said, “I think we've got a good deal for Albertans”.
The president of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario said, “This agreement removes any concerns about funding and expands universally accessible health care services”. Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, said, “The promised dollars in the agreement are great news for patients. Forty-one billion dollars over 10 years more than covers the Romanow Gap in provincial health care costs and is an impressive federal financial commitment”. Roy Romanow said, “This is...a very positive step forward for reform. I have no doubt about that”.
The election was in June 2004 and there was action in the fall. This year we had an election in January with a promise by the end of the year and we have not seen it. There is no indication of how much the Conservatives' phantom plan will cost or how it will be implemented.
The Canadian government should probably issue a new press release indicating that it actually had only four priorities, because it is clear that reducing wait times has slipped off its priority list altogether. The current minister is MIA. Perhaps he believes that by laying low and avoiding the subject of health care altogether, Canadians might not notice, but they do. They notice when a party says one thing and does not come through on that promise, whether it is making cuts to seniors, to poorer students, or to women in minority groups, or whether it is a broken promise on not getting jobs for political friends or muzzling their members or kicking MPs out of caucus. Canadians do notice and they will have the choice to make their voices heard.
Liberals believe that we need to make the necessary reforms to keep our health care system sustainable and accessible to all Canadians so they can receive treatment in a timely fashion. We delivered much in the historic agreement in 2004. It is now time for the new government to do something to build on that record of achievement.