Responding to Liberal claims that a government led by him would privatize parts of the public health care system, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said today that he supports the current system — but wants to see more private sector “innovation” to improve outcomes.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, where he is hosting a series of virtual roundtables, O’Toole said Trudeau is running a “misleading” campaign to convince voters that he doesn’t support a public and universal system of care.
He said that, rather than cut health care, a Conservative government would make “record high transfers to the provinces to ensure every Canadian can benefit from free, high-quality health care.”
O’Toole has promised to boost the annual growth rate of the Canada Health Transfer to at least six per cent from its current rate, which is tied to how much the economy grows in a given year, with a floor of three per cent — a $60 billion commitment over 10 years.
‘I trust the premiers’
He also said he also wouldn’t stand in the way of provinces working with the private sector to make changes to how care is delivered.
“I view innovation as a good thing. I trust the premiers to do what is best for patients in their provinces. If Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario or Quebec want to innovate to provide better health care, I support that,” O’Toole said.
“Why? Because it gives Canadians more choice. The more choices Canadians have in health care, the better.”
He said private, for-profit services could help alleviate the pressure on publicly run facilities, reduce wait times and save money.
Critics of privatization claim it threatens to undermine the current system, where access to health care is not dictated by an individual’s ability to pay.
O’Toole’s comment come a day after Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland posted to Twitter a selectively edited clip of O’Toole speaking about health care. In the video, O’Toole said he would be open to more for-profit health care in Canada to help address some of the current system’s failings.
Left out of Freeland’s edited video montage was O’Toole’s subsequent statement — that universal access to health services must be maintained. Twitter has since flagged the clip as “manipulated media.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Tuesday the edited clip accurately reflects O’Toole’s attitude toward private health care.
“Erin O’Toole has clearly and directly said he is a long-standing believer in for-profit models of health care.” Trudeau said. “He needs to come clean with Canadians on what exactly he means when he says that.”
O’Toole hit back, saying that on Trudeau’s watch, the private sector’s role in health care has grown considerably.
In Quebec, for example, the province recently signed 20 contracts with private clinics to outsource some surgeries and reduce waiting times. Radio-Canada reported in February that some 20,000 surgeries in that province have been done at private clinics already.
Saskatchewan has outsourced some diagnostic imaging to private operators to reduce wait times for MRIs and CT scans. Under this so-called “two-for-one” initiative, for-profit clinics can charge patients for scans as long as they provide an equal number of scans to patients on the public waiting list.
In a 2016 letter, former federal health minister Jane Philpott said she wanted the province to put an end to encouraging private payment for medical scans — but the practice has continued.
Meanwhile, dozens of for-profit COVID-19 testing sites have popped up all over the country during the pandemic, offering a service that is also available at public clinics.
O’Toole said that, as prime minister, he would let this sort of “innovation” flourish but he’d “draw the line” at more radical reforms that would fundamentally alter the nature of the single-payer health care system.
“Health care must be free for every Canadian. No one can ever be left behind and all personal health decisions should be made by patients and their doctors, not insurance companies or anyone else,” he said.
Provinces could face penalties for private care: Trudeau
Asked why Ottawa hasn’t done more to rein in private elements like the Saskatchewan imaging program, Trudeau said the federal government could impose financial penalties on provinces that allow for the private delivery of services by curbing how much they get each year through the Canada Health Transfer.
“We will continue to stand up for a public, universal health care system, unlike Erin O’Toole,” Trudeau said.
He said Ottawa has had “discussions” with Quebec about its reliance on private operators for some surgeries.
Trudeau has promised $10 billion in new spending to clear surgical backlogs, hire 7,500 more doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners, and expand virtual options for primary care.