The federal party leaders may be paying little attention to the many troubles that vex Canada’s health-care system, but Dr. Samir Sinha doesn’t have that choice.
The director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai and the University Health Network hospitals faces a constant struggle to meet the needs of his elderly patients, a demographic the system was never designed to serve.
When it comes to home and community care services, the system is seriously faltering, warns Sinha, who is concerned that if the problems are not addressed soon they will get much worse as the seniors population grows.
“The health-care system isn’t ready to meet the current needs and the future needs of our aging population. There is almost a situation where everyone is putting their heads in the sand,” laments Sinha, who also serves as the provincial lead for the Ontario Seniors Strategy.
With just over six weeks left in the federal election campaign, Sinha hopes the leaders will turn their attention to seniors’ pressing health needs. It would make good political sense, given that more than 80 per cent of seniors vote, he notes.
There are many other health issues begging for more attention. Advocates of pharmacare and physician-assisted suicide are pushing hard to get their concerns front and centre.
Nevertheless, there has been little discussion so far about health care during the campaign, despite the fact that time and time again it ranks as the top issue of concern among voters.
The exception is Green Party Leader Elizabeth May who on Wednesday announced her party’s strategy for seniors. It includes a universal drug program and a guaranteed livable income.
Meantime, health-care professionals like Sinha are left to deal with the fallout from the widening cracks in the system.
“The issue my patients struggle with the most is getting access to home and community care services. I spend way too much of my time trying to navigate the complicated system on behalf of my patients to make sure we can cobble together what they may need,” he says.
Physicians across the country are equally worried. More than 500 members of the Canadian Medical Association gathered last week for their annual meeting in Halifax where they reiterated their call for the creation of a national seniors’ strategy.
Outgoing president Dr. Chris Simpson told the gathering that there is widespread public support for a seniors strategy to meet the growing health needs of an aging population, but that politicians have been disappointingly silent on the issue.
In his closing speech, Simpson warned that doctors are not going to let politicians off the hook.
“We will be tracking commitments made by the parties, and we’ll publish the results at the end of the campaign so that Canadians who are worried about seniors can make an informed decision when they’re at the ballot box.”
Alan Freeman, Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, isn’t surprised that the issue of health care has not received much attention. Any substantive discussion would involve mention of transfer payments and equalization formulas — complicated topics that make people’s eyes glaze over.
That absence of debate serves Conservative Leader Stephen Harper just fine, Freeman contends.
“This works out quite well from the federal government’s point of view, especially Harper’s point of view, in that he’s not interested in an activist role for the federal government in health care,” Freeman says.
A similar sentiment was expressed in a recent editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Deputy editor Dr. Matthew Stanbrook wrote that the federal government seems to be trying to get out of the health-care business.
“Recent years have seen Canada’s health-care system race to the bottom of quality rankings compared with other nations that have prudently invested in maintaining a strong social safety net,” he wrote, warning that the most complex problems in the health-care system cannot be solved without federal leadership.
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins agrees that Ottawa’s hands-off approach is hurting the health system. He’s specifically concerned about the Conservative government’s plan to reduce the rate of increases in health transfers to the provinces.
“As Canadians, we owe it to ourselves and to our children to begin a frank and earnest conversation about the state of our health-care system and what a modern health-care system should look like in 2015 and beyond,” Hoskins said in an email to the Star. “It’s up to all of us — both political leaders and the citizens we represent — to speak up and ensure it has a place in that electoral debate.”
Conservative party spokesperson Stephen Lecce noted that just last week Stephen Harper promised to maintain funding for the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, an agency devoted to combating the disease.
“Since 2006, under prime minister Harper’s leadership, health transfers have increased by 70 per cent while balancing the budget and keeping taxes low. Federal funding is a record levels, and will reach $40 billion annually by end of decade, providing certainty and stability, and an enhanced quality of life for Canadians,” he said.
Barry Kay, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, expects that in a long campaign, the parties are biding their time before getting into substantive debates.
“I think the leaders are holding their fire till later on when the campaign moves beyond the ‘spring training’ phase and more people are watching,” he said.