By any standards, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s $612-million investment in what he called “patient wait times guarantees” was one of the highest-profile, biggest-ticket moves of his early days in power. On April 4, 2007, Harper announced that funding in a major speech in Ottawa to the annual “Taming of the Queue” conference of doctors and health policy experts. But with that three-year injection of cash exhausted, those who attended the conference’s 2010 edition last week heard nothing about any new federal investment in what was once a signature Conservative policy.
Lorne Bellan, the Winnipeg ophthalmologist who co-chairs a physicians’ group called the Wait Time Alliance, watched the issue of long waits for care rise as a political hot topic a few years ago—and then plummet. “They are not talking about any policy push now,” says Bellan. “Nothing national, that’s for sure.” A patchwork of provincial wait-times policies continues without significant ongoing input from Ottawa, and often without any easily comparable national statistics.
Exactly what Harper bought for $612 million isn’t clear. Each province got $10 million up front, and each territory $4 million, for committing to a guaranteed wait for a single procedure. For instance, British Columbia guaranteed radiation therapy within eight weeks, Newfoundland guaranteed bypass surgery within 26 weeks. The remaining $500 million was doled out on a per capita basis, under a general agreement that provinces would work toward shrinking wait lists, but with no requirement for reporting back in detail on how it was spent.
Bellan said there’s been progress, including faster cataract surgeries and hip replacements across Canada. But waits in other problem areas, like gastrointestinal illness and psychiatric care, never got full-bore political attention. And now the era of wait times ranking near the top of the federal political agenda appears to have run out, along with all that money.