Yukon government focusing on medical travel in health care talks with Ottawa

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver says medical travel funding is a top priority for the territory during health-care talks with the federal government.

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver says medical travel funding is a top priority for the territory during health-care talks with the federal government.

He said the Yukon is negotiating directly with Ottawa after the provinces and territories rejected a deal from the federal government during health-care meetings earlier this month. But the territory has not yet signed its own deal with the feds.

“Each province and territory has specific concerns that are important to their jurisdictions,” he told the News this week. “And in the Yukon it’s medical travel. Any opportunity that we have, we’re throwing that at Ottawa.”

Medical travel funding from the federal government has declined in recent years. Between 2004 and 2014, the Yukon received $1.6 million annually from Ottawa to support the cost of transporting patients out of the territory when they need specialized care. That money came through a series of territorial health funding agreements that were negotiated every few years.

But when the latest three-year agreement was announced in 2014, the funding for medical travel was set to decline year after year. In 2014-15, the Yukon received $1.2 million. That amount dropped to $800,000 in 2015-16 and $600,000 in 2016-17.

Overall, the Yukon government spent $12.7 million on medical travel in 2015-16.

“Honestly, (the federal funding) does not cover our medical travel costs,” said Health and Social Services spokesperson Pat Living.

That three-year agreement is set to expire in March, and a new agreement has yet to be negotiated.

The News has recently reported on complaints from a number of Yukoners who say the medical travel program doesn’t cover enough of their costs when they fly to Vancouver or other cities for medical care.

“Medical travel is really important for us,” Silver said. “And what we’ve seen over the years is that amount of money from Ottawa decreasing. We want to see it increase or at least stabilize. And we want to see a longer-term commitment.”

The existing territorial health investment fund also included money for chronic disease management and mental health care.

The specific needs of the territories have not received much attention during the ongoing federal health-care negotiations. The talks have been dominated by disagreement between Ottawa and the provinces over how much the health-care transfer payment should increase from year to year.

The health transfer has been rising by six per cent a year since 2005, but in April, that is set to drop to three per cent or the rate of nominal GDP, whichever is higher.

During meetings on Dec. 19, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott and Finance Minister Bill Morneau offered a sweeter deal to their provincial and territorial counterparts, including an annual increase of 3.5 per cent. They also offered $11 billion over 10 years for mental health and home care.

But the deal was roundly rejected by the provinces and territories, who were calling for a yearly increase of 5.2 per cent.

Shortly after the talks ended, New Brunswick broke ranks and signed a health-care deal with Ottawa, to widespread criticism from other provinces. Reports suggest that several other jurisdictions are now negotiating with the federal government individually.

Silver said the Yukon is in talks with Ottawa, though he insisted the territory is “still united with the other provinces and territories.”

But he said the annual increase — whether it’s 3.5 or 5.2 per cent — doesn’t matter as much to the Yukon. That’s because the health transfer is allocated on a per-capita basis. Because the Yukon has such a small population compared to the provinces, the difference between a couple of percentage points doesn’t add up to much.

“The differential between that low number and that high number for Yukon, it’s like a million dollars,” Silver said. “It’s not a lot of money. For Quebec, it’s billions of dollars.”

He said the Yukon is much more interested in targeted funding through a new territorial health agreement, which would include money for medical travel. He also said the territory could use the extra cash promised for home care and mental health.

But he added that the territory can’t ignore the demands the provinces are making, especially B.C. and Alberta, because it depends on them to support the Yukon’s medical travel program.

“They spend millions of dollars of their health-care money for Yukoners,” he said. “They sure as hell do take care of us. And they don’t have to, right? So this is a balance, it’s delicate and we have to be very mindful of what’s happening in Alberta and B.C.”

Yukon Liberal MP Larry Bagnell told the News this week that the Yukon government “should definitely continue talks with the federal government, because mental health and home care are huge issues in the Yukon.”

The Yukon is slated to receive $38 million through the Canada health transfer in 2017-18. The total transfer payment from Ottawa will be $972 million, up from $946 million in 2016-17.

With files from the Canadian Press

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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