Mental health advocates urge holdout provinces to reach health deal

Mental Health Commission of Canada cheers provinces that signed bilateral deals with the federal government

OTTAWA – Mental health advocates want holdout provinces to end their funding standoff with Ottawa and strike deals to ensure struggling patients have access to critical front-line services.

Louise Bradley, president of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, is cheering those provinces, including Saskatchewan, that signed bilateral deals with the federal government identifying mental health as a funding priority.

On Tuesday, Saskatchewan signed on for annual health transfer payment increases of either three per cent or the three-year moving average of nominal GDP growth, whichever proves higher.

The deal also included an additional $348.8 million over 10 years for investments in home and mental-health care.

Bradley said she understands why provinces including the big three – Ontario, B.C. and Quebec – still need to stand firm in order to negotiate the best possible agreement, but people are dying in the meantime, she warned.

“Eventually an agreement is going to have to be reached.”

Dr. Catherine Zahn, president of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said it’s vital to change the public perception of mental illnesses as minor, frivolous or trivial medical conditions.

“Let’s do the right thing by making the appropriate level of investment in terms of the mental health of all Canadians,” Zahn said. “They can disabling, they can be debilitating, they can be deadly.”

That said, don’t look for Manitoba to sign on the dotted line any time soon.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister made it clear Wednesday his province and others remain steadfast in their opposition to the current federal offer, as well as to so-called targeted investments.

“The billboarding of saying you’re doing something on mental health may appeal in the short term to folks like me, who love to advance the cause of better mental health,” Pallister said.

“But if the victory of mental health comes at the defeat of everyone else who needs health care outside of that category, that’s hardly useful.”

Ontario’s Health Minister Eric Hoskins also noted that regardless of the six bilateral deals that exist, 90 per cent of Canada’s population is still outside of that envelope.

“There are few, if any, things that are more important to Ontarians and to Canadians than a sustainable, accessible, high-quality health care system,” Hoskins said.

The Canadian Medical Association, meanwhile, joined the ranks of those warning against side deals with the federal government.

“A national and strategic approach to improving our health care system remains essential,” the association said in a statement. “The current approach is not conducive to achieving the commitments set out by Health Minister Jane Philpott earlier this year.”

Maybe not, but the deals are a sign of progress, said Gabriel Miller, a vice-president at the Canadian Cancer Society.

“This was a country that for more than a decade was in a state of denial about problems in our health care system and the need for governments to sit down and talk about them,” Miller said.

“We’ve finally started the conversation … there’s a huge amount of work left to be done but we are further ahead now than we were three months ago.”

New Democrat health critic Don Davies called the side deals a “divisive approach” that could end up posing a threat to the uniformity enshrined in the Canada Health Act.

“The Liberal government has clearly given up on their attempts at collaborative federalism,” Davies said.

With files from Allison Jones in Toronto, Steve Lambert in Winnipeg and Jennifer Graham in Regina