How to provide consistent health care to all Canadians

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By P.G. Forest
University of Calgary
and Danielle Martin
Women’s College Hospital

Canadian medicare would not exist without the actions of the federal government. But in recent years, there’s been an atrophy of the imagination about Ottawa’s role in health policy, as if federal transfer payments to the provinces and territories were the beginning and the end of everything. We recently submitted a report to the federal minister of health that’s intended to re-animate that imagination.

P.G. Forest

We’ve spent the last six months carrying out a review of eight federally-funded organizations in the health sector. These bodies amount to several hundred million dollars of annual federal spending and while each has accomplished important things over the last few decades, our overriding recommendation is that the status quo can’t continue if the dollars spent in Ottawa on health-care policy are to accelerate progress in health for all Canadians.

There’s an overwhelming consensus across the country and internationally that the future health systems of Canada must have people at the centre. Each of us should feel cared for as a full person, with our values and preferences taken into account in every part of the health system. Furthermore, every Canadian, wherever they live and whoever they are, must be able to access high-quality health care, without the kinds of unjustifiable variations in the nature and effectiveness of services that are still too common across the country.

Strong primary care should offer an entry door into the system, as it does now; in the future, primary care teams will also take charge of most of the health needs of patients, from the co-ordination of treatment to concrete action to improve the social conditions in which they live.


This vision would serve every Canadian. It doesn’t belong to any one province or territory, though we know that all our provincial and territorial leaders, as well as patient groups and health care providers, are anxious to see it become a reality. To get there, change needs to come not only from the local level but also from our national government: action is urgently required in Ottawa to help bring this vision into being.

We put forward 10 recommendations in our report that – if implemented – would result in a complete overhaul of these organizations, leaving a smaller number of larger bodies better designed to meet the needs of 21st century health systems. We presented the minister with different plausible scenarios for change, each combining three core elements:

• A strong national drug agency to support universal pharmacare in Canada and stand up to the important global trends around drug pricing, innovation and appropriate use of prescription medicines.

• A strong data and technology agency that can help collect and link information, feeding it back to patients and the people who deliver care to them so health care can learn and improve.

• A signature agency that will embody the values the government wishes to pursue most aggressively – be it efficiency, innovation, engagement or equity.

A gain for this vision of the future will mean hard change ahead for the organizations of the present. Transforming organizations that have well-established stakeholder communities and a history of legitimate accomplishments behind them will not be easy. Arms-length bodies can easily become symbols of a government’s commitment to a cause and any suggestion of sunsetting them is too easily interpreted as a retreat from a commitment to a problem or a population.

While the federal minister reflects on our advice and consults with her provincial and territorial counterparts about next steps, there are a few recommendations in our report that could be implemented immediately. The most important of these is a call for the government to sit down with national Indigenous organizations and begin a discussion about how the pan-Canadian health organizations can support Indigenous health in Canada.

It’s time for change. What has gotten Canadian health systems to their present state won’t be sufficient to get them where they need to go. The federal government, and the arms-length bodies it funds, are important partners in the work ahead for Canadian health care.

Dr. P.G. Forest is the director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. Dr. Danielle Martin is a family physician and vice-president at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.

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By Pierre-Gerlier Forest

Prior to joining The School of Public Policy, PG Forest was Director of the Institute for Health and Social Policy at Johns Hopkins University and Professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. From 2006 to 2013, he was resident of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, a reputed Canadian institution that encourages innovation in policy research and the dissemination of original and practical solutions to social issues.

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