Protecting Canada’s universal health-care system is job No. 1

There is a constellation of serious issues piling up on the desk of our new Health Minister, Jane Philpott. There’s how to legalize cannabis, while ensuring medicinal marijuana is accessible and of high quality. Simultaneously, the government must manage health warnings that should be applied as healthy people look to cannabis as a recreational drug. There’s the challenge to the medical community to ensure that the coming regime to ensure legal physician-assisted death provides clarity. There’s the issue, well-handled in her first few months, of lax regulation of toxic pesticides. And there is the mandate letter direction to act to reduce the health threat to children posed by sugary drinks.

Thanks to the unanimous support for my private member’s bill C-442 in the last Parliament, Philpott has a mandatory duty to develop a federal Lyme disease strategy. Work on that is proceeding with a planned federal-provincial/territorial conference planned for May 16-18 in Ottawa. Thousands of Lyme disease patients across Canada are pinning their hopes on that conference to develop an improved protocol for effective diagnosis, treatment and cure.

Still, for all the significant, indeed transformative, issues in the health portfolio, nothing trumps ensuring the sustainability of our health-care system. For that it is critical that the federal government take seriously the responsibility to enforce the Canada Health Act. The creeping growth of private clinics and private medical facilities must meet strong resistance from a federal government enforcing the Canada Health Act. The promised renewal of federal-provincial and territorial consultations and negotiations to renew the Health Accord must include commitments from provinces to sanction and prevent two-tiered medicine. While some argue that the growth of private facilities is no threat to our single-payer universal health care, the reality is that, as long as Canada is within NAFTA, every new facility brings us closer to a successful challenge from a U.S. for-profit corporation to our entire system. We can only protect our health care system as a public, not-for-profit public service. We can never protect it if it is a market.

The most helpful tool in the minister’s mandate letter will be the pursuit of bulk buying of prescription drugs. As the thorough and convincing study produced by international health experts, Pharmacare 2020, conclusively established, Canada could save $7-billion per year by bringing in a national pharmacare plan. No Canadian should go without medically prescribed treatment solely for lack of funds. But neither should the pharmaceutical industry be allowed to make obscene profits on drugs with minor variations on existing R and D. Nor should Health Canada register pharmaceuticals without applying a more rigorous assessment of the risks and benefits. The standard applied by the UBC Therapeutics Initiative should be applied. Between the two prongs of bulk buying and greater scrutiny of the side effects and risks of drugs, the health-care system will reduce the single biggest pressure driving up costs—the rising cost of prescription drugs.

Patient centred care with a greater focus on team medicine will likely be the model that provides more connection for every Canadian with a family doctor. Greater access to long-term health care facilities, as well as support for home care, will reduce hospital costs.

Electronic records, transportable and available to every patient will reduce administrative costs. There is also a huge gap in health care facilities and programs for mental health and addiction. Canadian prisons are not the appropriate place for treating those with mental illness or addiction.

The enormous potential of preventative health care must be embraced. Reducing the intake of sugary drinks is a good start. But so too should be promoting healthy and locally-grown food. The high school on Salt Spring Island, Gulf Islands Secondary School, supplies most of the food for the school kitchens from the gardens at the school, tended by the students. While southern Vancouver Island does have an unusually long growing season, the model is largely transportable. Linking local food to institutional kitchens would improve health in schools and hospitals. Cutting costs by eliminating institutional kitchens across Canada was penny wise and pound foolish.

Healthy living, active-living, is a bridge between the portfolios of health and infrastructure. Canadian cities and towns need funds to invest in enhanced pedestrian and cycling opportunities. This green infrastructure will help reduce GHG emissions while improving fitness and health. Cyclists should not have to risk their lives in Canadian cities to commute to work. Safe cycling is the norm in most European cities. Canada needs to ensure safe cycling across the country.

Canada still has a far more cost-effective and compassionate health-care system than our neighbours south of the border. It is no longer enough to watch its decline. It is time to reverse it.

Originally published in the Hill Times.