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Taking the Pulse on Canadian Health Before the Vote on Monday

Posted: October 17, 2015

(October 17, 2015)

By Sharmini Peries, The Real News Network

Natalie Mehra, Executive Director of the Ontario Health Coalition, and Linda Silas, President of the Canadians Federation of Nurses Unions, say the Harper cuts to health care lead to one of the most expensive drug plans in the developed world


Natalie Mehra is the Director of the Ontario Health Coalition. The OHC is made up of more than 400 community organizations. The Coalition accompanies the communities in their engagement in the creation of policy related to healthcare, while also playing the role of watchdog on the Governments themselves. The group also plays a role in public education about the functioning of the health care system.


SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Canadians will be voting on Monday, October 19. And there is no issue closer to their hearts when they go to the polls than making sure that they protect their universal healthcare system from becoming heavily privatized like that of the United States. The Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper, implemented cuts to the federal health transfer escalator rate, dropping them from 6 percent to 3 percent tied to GDP growth. There is also limited and targeted funding for health research.

Now joining me to discuss the different party positions on healthcare are two guests, Natalie Mehra and Linda Silas. Linda is joining us from Ottawa, and she is the president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses union which represents nearly 200,000 nurses in the country. And joining us from Toronto is Natalie Mehra. Natalie is the executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, an organization representing more than half a million people in its network. Thank you both for joining us today.

LINDA SILAS: Thank you.

PERIES: So on Friday, Natalie Mehra wrote an editorial that is published in the Toronto Star. She wrote: Across Ontario, federal Conservative candidates have refused to attend most all candidates’ debates on healthcare. This is a new low. Never has any political party simply refused to debate a leading issue for voters.

So Natalie, then let me begin with you. Historically the Canadian healthcare system has long defined Canadian election results. So why are the Conservatives refusing to debate this issue?

NATALIE MEHRA: Well, you’re right it’s a break with history. Actually, when public health care, public medicare in Canada as it’s known, that’s the universal healthcare system for all people. When it was brought in it was brought in unanimously. All of the parties voted for it in our House of Commons, in our parliament. So this is new. And really, I think that what’s happening is part of it is that the Conservatives under Stephen Harper have really taken a very sharp turn towards a much more radical approach to politics. And they believe–the way that they sort of covered their privatization agenda is to claim that healthcare is a provincial issue. So it doesn’t belong in the federal government’s hands, let the provinces do with it what they will. That’s part of it. And part of it is that they’re just simply covering up for what is a terrible record on public healthcare.

PERIES: So Linda, you came out with the report card on the various party platforms on healthcare. Based on that, who exactly do you think has the best platform when it comes to defending our universal healthcare system?

SILAS: Well, the only party who ranked 5, which was our highest ranking, was the NDP. Second came the Liberal party of Canada, and the Conservatives, as Natalie pointed out, they flatlined. They failed on every area, which was from federal funding, a safe senior strategy, a national prescription drug program, and a health human resource strategy for our country. Natalie explained to you that they’re not attending any debates on healthcare. It is no surprise to any healthcare stakeholders, from nurses, doctors, and advocates like Natalie, because they made all their decisions on healthcare behind closed doors.

Two years ago the minister of finance more or less sent a memo to the provinces and territories and said, well, from now on this is the formula you’re going to receive funding from the federal government. And that’s that. Even the premiers are turning against the federal government when it comes to healthcare, because they know they’re not getting their fair share in funding and in leadership, from research to innovations, to pharmaceuticals.

PERIES: So Natalie, currently Canada has one of the most expensive systems for purchasing prescription drugs. Are any of the parties addressing this particular issue?

MEHRA: Canada has, actually, the second-highest prices for drugs of the developed world. The United States of course pays the most, has the most expensive prices for drugs. We have the second-highest. It’s a bad record. And in our country the federal government is responsible for introductory drug pricing and regulatory regimes regarding drugs.

We’re pretty concerned, because with the new trade agreement, the TPP, the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is really not so much a trade agreement as it is a sort of, a treaty that will bind governments and limit their powers to regulate industries including the pharmaceutical industry, any promises have been put at threat because of course patent protections, regulatory regimes for drug companies, are included in that TPP agreement. And if it actually goes through governments are going to have a very hard time actually regulating drug prices any better than they do today.

But at this point, the Liberals have promised some action on negotiating better drug prices, they say with the provinces, the NDP has promised to move towards a national public drug program of some sort. We don’t have the details yet. And controlling drug prices. The Green party has promised a full universal drug program, has not talked about drug prices so much. The Conservatives have promised nothing whatsoever on any of these issues, and nothing certainly on drugs.

What’s important about this is that if we were to bring in a public drug program we’d actually save a lot of money. Because you’d get rid of all the middlemen, all the profiteering, private insurance companies. You can bulk buy, and what bigger market than the entire country. So with that kind of bulk buying power we would have enormous power to improve the setting of prices for drugs. And you know, control some of the extra costs like marketing and so on. That alone would save $11 billion for Canadians and would create public drug coverage for all.

In my province, Ontario, just yesterday–two days ago, sorry. The government came out with a report on health quality. And it has measures of all kinds of things. One of the key measures they reported was that one in twelve people over 55 is not filling at least one prescription because of the high cost of drugs. It’s shocking. And so in a public medicare system where you can get your diagnosis covered publicly, it makes no sense whatsoever not to have drug coverage so that you can actually afford the cure.

PERIES: Linda, one of the very interesting things about the Green party platform is that they have addressed preventative care, as well as really looking at health issues related to food and contamination of our food. How do they stand in your report card?

SILAS: They did very well on healthcare issues. And as Natalie mentioned, on the national prescription drug program they’re going for the full deal. Which means more than just bulk buying. Because with bulk buying, so if all the provinces get together with the federal government, buy the drugs together, we will get a better price. I always say to nurses, it’s like when you–not to promote Costco–but when you go to Costco to buy your toilet paper, you’ll pay less than if you go at your corner store, just the sheer volume.

But what a national prescription drug program always also gives you is the safety. In our country, about a third of seniors take medications that are proven to be dangerous for themselves. And it’s because we do not have specific protocols, and we do not have watchdogs, and we don’t link the system together. And that’s what a national pharmacare program gives you. And that’s why most of the countries that do have a universal healthcare program like we have in Canada, it’s attached to a pharmacare program or a national prescription drug program to make sure it is all linked.

You know, we will hear that the cost of hospitalization is very high. But I’m always trouble when I look at the hospital cost, and the studies say that about 6 percent of all hospitalizations are due to patients who cannot take their medication as prescribed. So when the doctor or the nurse practitioner prescribes medication, they either can’t afford it or don’t know how to take it. And then 6 percent of them end up back in the hospital. And that is costly to the system, but also to patients and their families. And there’s a better way of doing it. What’s encouraging is everyone’s talking about it now. You mentioned the Green party, but every health researcher in the country are now talking about a national prescription drug program. Every employer, the provincial governments. Everyone is saying we have to take a grip of the costs of our prescription drugs and find better prescription habits, too.

PERIES: And the next question goes to both of you. There’s been a lot of advice by both Leadnow and in terms of asking people to vote strategically in this election. And I wanted to get both of your views on that in relation to healthcare. Let me start with you, Natalie.

MEHRA: So, we’re nonpartisan. It’s not our job to tell people how to vote. We just tell people the truth. These are the issues as we see them that would make the biggest difference for Canadians and our lives. We believe in the sort of core values that I think are shared deeply across Canada, that healthcare is about providing care equally for all people based on need, not based on how rich you are. That that is a core value of our country, that we’ll uphold that. And so we’ve looked at the platforms of the various parties, and we’ve compared them based on that value, and on that approach and told people what we think of those. But we don’t endorse any party, we don’t tell people who to vote for.

I do have to say that the worst, the worst record in all the 20 years that I’ve been involved in the health coalition, you know, the worst record that I’ve seen is the current federal government. It’s very dangerous. We’ve lost ten years worth of potential progress on healthcare. We have seen a lot of damage to the system, and now there’s this plan for a massive cut to the funding formula which will result in cuts to needed services. The parliamentary budget office even has warned that the provinces cannot afford the download of costs that is being planned because of the federal government’s cut. Very, very serious situation.

I’m distressed that there has not been enough debate about public healthcare leading into this election. In fact, I’m very distressed because I believe that if Canadians knew what was going on it would bring the issue–it would make their decisions a lot clearer and their choices a lot clearer. The other parties, you know–as I said in the op-ed I wrote, all the promises are fairly modest. But if you think about it, if we were to be able to make some progress towards a national pharmacare program that would be the first new social program in decades in our country. It would alleviate suffering for millions of people. It would make a huge difference in people’s standard of living. It would be a tremendous gain.

And so I think no matter who is elected, immediately after the election we must push that the federal government sit down with the provinces, renew the federal health accord, renew the funding formula, and let’s set a timeline and make progress towards pharmacare. Let’s do it and accomplish it. Which will be possible, whether the Liberals or the NDP get in. It looks like they’re willing to make moves towards it. And it’s going to take a push of real Canadians to make that happen, no matter who gets in.

PERIES: Linda, the nurses hold great moral high ground in terms of the Canadian consciousness. How do you feel about strategic voting, and what are you saying to voters and friends of yours?

SILAS: I think we shocked many people during nurses week last May when nurses, [Canada’s] nurses came out and said we were going to register with Elections Canada to be directly involved in influencing Canadians on how to vote this election. Why? Because we’ve never done it. Similar to Natalie’s organization, we are non-partisan. But Canada’s nurses are political. And it is time that we start speaking and using our connections with our families and patients that are out there with our communities because if we don’t speak up on October 19, the nurses across the country are convinced that we will lose little by little our public healthcare system.

The premiers are telling us they can’t continue on funding our acute care, our hospitals. They need to expand homecare, they need to expand long-term care. They don’t know where they’re going to get the money. And of course we talked a lot about the costs of prescription drugs. And then there’s mental health. There’s aboriginal health in our country that is shameful, what we’re doing or the lack of what we’re doing there. And our prevention. Public health. So the premiers are saying, how can I do it? I don’t get enough from the federal government. And their only solution is to privatize, and we know from other experience the more you privatize the higher the cost and the lower the quality.

So we’re not going to tell people how to vote, but today, or on Friday, a video was coming out from myself. And it is clear we’re telling Canadians the Conservatives have flatlined it on our goals on healthcare. MPs are hiding or candidates are hiding behind I Love Medicare buttons. But we expect better from the MPs that we’re going to elect on October 19. And we expect them to act in Ottawa on healthcare issues.

So the message is, like one of our ex-premiers says, it’s an ABC. Anything But Conservative. And make intelligent decisions in all your ridings when you’re going to go vote on the 19th to make sure you protect our healthcare system and then work with nurses to enhance it in the years to come.

PERIES: Natalie, I want to thank you, and also Linda, thank you so much for joining us today and making your positions very clear on this most important issue on the eve of the elections.

SILAS: Thank you.

MEHRA: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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