Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski insists it’s still possible to squeeze more health money out of Ottawa.
That’s despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assurances, as recently as a CBC interview on Monday, that the federal government’s current offer is firm.
But the current health agreement “doesn’t expire for two more years,” Pasloski said in an interview Tuesday from Victoria after Canada’s premiers wrapped up a two-day meeting.
“There needs to be discussion, and I think there will be,” he said.
Health transfers have increased by six per cent annually in recent years. But starting in 2017, Ottawa wants to peg any future increases to growth of the economy and inflation, with a floor of at least three per cent.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty sprung the plan on surprised premiers in December. It’s been described by some as a take it or leave it offer.
B.C. Premier Christy Clarke, speaking on behalf of all premiers on Tuesday, called the federal plan “unprecedented and unacceptable.”
Pasloski, a one-time federal Conservative candidate, was more reserved with his criticism. But he also called the offer “unprecedented.”
“Everyone’s used to dialogue,” he said.
Other than direct health transfers, the Yukon also receives a special top-up fund, currently worth $8 million annually, to help offset the cost of providing health care in the territory. On Sunday, Pasloski met with the two other territorial premiers to renew their commitment to continue lobbying for this money, which expires in two years.
In the end, the premiers agreed to strike two working groups related to health care. The first, led by Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz, will spend the next six months looking at innovative ways to save money in delivering health care.
The provinces could learn from the Yukon, Pasloski suggested. At the table with his counterparts, he touted the territory’s use of teleconferencing technologies to conduct medical assessments and electronic transmission of various medical scans.
Another working group, led by Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, will look at the fiscal impact of Ottawa’s plans to curb health transfers.
Provinces and territories will be left with a big financial shortfall under the new health-transfer plan, according to a recent report by the parliamentary budget officer. It anticipates health transfers to grow at an average of 3.9 per cent from 2017 to 2024, while provincial health spending grows by 5.1 per cent.
The result would be a big funding gap: $49 billion in 2011-12, if the new scheme were in place by then, and set to grow over time.
That would leave territorial and provincial governments with two options: raise revenues by hiking taxes or levying fees, such as health premiums, or offering fewer health services.
On the bright side, the new health plan would allow Ottawa to balance its expenses and revenue and escape the structural deficit it’s currently in, according to the report.
Nearly one-third of the Yukon government’s expenses are eaten up by the Department of Health and Social Services. In provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario, health departments consume nearly half of the government budgets.
Yukon’s health expenses have grown by nearly 50 per cent over the past five years. And, as the territory’s population ages, these costs are only expected to grow.
Premiers, despite their united front presented in Victoria, don’t see eye to eye on the federal plan.
Those from the western provinces have cheered the plan’s lack of strings attached, while eastern premiers have warned the federal government needs to play a stronger role in maintaining a national health-care system.
But that’s Canada, said Pasloski. “It’s many regions with many different challenges,” he said.
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