Challenges facing the Minister of Health

It is a good thing that the new Health Minister is a medical doctor.  It is not so much for her medical knowledge as for the skill set that comes with being a family practitioner.  The Hon Jane Philpott strikes me as a steady hand, a clam and competent person, capable of managing stress.  Which is a good thing as her mandate letter is a catalogue of serious challenges.

From the commitment right out the gate to bring forward legislation on medically assisted dying to legalizing marijuana, she is sailing into some strong headwinds.  Add the negotiation of a new Health Accord, responding effectively to the horrific suicide epidemic in some indigenous communities and the plan to bulk buy prescription drugs, and she might regret having won her seat at all.

Her mandate letter includes direction to act on enhanced home care services, health information innovations, new digital health technology, implementing high quality mental health, boosting vaccination rates, acting on concussions in sports, tobacco packaging and, working with other ministers, on Nutrition North.

The pledge to take on the threats to children’s health from over-processed, chemically “enhanced” and sugary food-like stuff fed to children is also welcome.  Restrictions and warnings on trans-fats and salt are also promised.  But the food industry, particularly the big players like Coca-Cola, Cargill and Monsanto are formidable obstacles.  There can be no greater legacy for Minister Philpott than looking after the health of our children by ensuring that their physical, mental and spiritual health needs are fully considered.

On top of that are persistent problems within Health Canada.  CFIA has had a cultural bias as an agency to protecting the reputation of Canadian food exports, sometimes at the risk of endangering the health of Canadians.  The lysteriosis crisis at Maple Leaf is a prime example of where action was delayed.  The mandate for CFIA contains this inherent conflict of interest.  The agency is both to promote Canadian food exports and regulate food safety.  An overhaul of the CFIA enabling legislation will be needed.

Similarly, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency has a history of granting toxic chemicals constitutional rights.  Under the PMRA, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.  One of Philpott’s early and welcome moves was to rescind the “temporary registration” for a host of toxic pesticides, allowed to be used temporarily for years – with no testing at all. An opportunity to improve pesticide regulation is opening up in the Environment Committee with the review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.  Since the late 1980s the act has regulated toxic chemicals from cradle to grave.  The problem is that from the act’s inception, it omitted two classes of toxic chemical – radionuclides and pesticides.  The regulatory framework for commercial pesticides is essentially unchanged from the days when PMRA was housed within Agriculture Canada.  Despite its welcome relocation to Health Canada, the organizational culture has remained industry-friendly.  To better protect public health, a move to CEPA, which is already jointly administered by both the Health and Environment minister, would be a vast improvement.

A too cozy relationship with pharmaceutical multi-national corporations can also be inferred from the difference in the assessment of prescription drugs by Health Canada when compared to the reviews of the same drugs and the same data packages when reviewed by the Therapeutics Initiative at UBC in Vancouver.

While not fully embracing national Pharmacare, the Minister’s mandate letter calls on her to explore bulk buying of prescription drugs.  As the rising cost of drugs is the single largest component to rising health care costs, a focus on reducing those prices through bulk purchasing can pass on cost savings to the provinces.  It can and will make prescription drugs more affordable.  Taking the next step to ensure every Canadian can afford to fill their prescriptions is a necessary step in enhancing public health.

The Green Party also believes we need to spend more time, research dollars and attention to the benefits of preventative health care.  Healthy living, staying fit and avoiding exposure to dangerous chemicals can save our health care system by keeping us well.

Lastly, I am so very pleased that the 41st Parliament passed my private members bill for a Federal Lyme Disease Strategy.  From May 15-17, Public Health Agency officials will, in compliance with my bill, be working to develop a new and progressive strategy to deal with Lyme Disease.  The Public Health Agency has determined that Lyme is the fastest growing infectious disease in Canada.  The agency expects that by 2020 we will face 10,000 new cases of Lyme every single year.  It is my firm hope that the conference will listen to those who suffer from Lyme and guarantee them treatment in Canada, ending the common practice of going to the US to get treatment.

Originally published in the Hill Times.