Quebec, feds finally strike health care funding deal

The federal government has reached health funding agreements with Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, Health Minister Jane Philpott confirmed Friday — a significant reversal of fortunes after months of negotiations and threats of walkouts at meetings last year.

Philpott confirmed the deals, which leave Manitoba as the only remaining provincial holdout, with a wide grin and high-fives with her fellow cabinet ministers during the daily question period.

She later denied that the government had employed a "divide-and-conquer" strategy against premiers who had presented a unified front against Ottawa's planned reductions in annual health transfer payment increases.

Part of the new agreement with Alberta includes $6 million to address the impacts of its opioid crisis — funds aimed at buttressing the province's efforts to address the growing impacts of the drugs, Philpott said.

News of the agreements comes on the heels of a deal reached last month with British Columbia that included $1.4 billion in health money over a 10-year period and $10 million specially to combat an especially acute opioid problem.

Philpott has long advocated for targeted money in home care and mental health in order to ensure the areas are treated as priorities.

At a meeting of health and finance ministers last December, the provinces and territories rejected a federal offer of $11 billion over 10 years for home care and mental health, as well as $544 million over five years for prescription drug and innovation initiatives.

At that time, Quebec Health Minister Gaetan Barrette threatened to walk away from the negotiating table if the federal government didn't put up more money, while Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa accused Ottawa of preferring a unilateral approach.

Couillard lauds agreement

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard praised Friday's agreement for acknowledging his province's "distinct" character, lauding Ottawa for accepting the "principle of asymmetry," which he said will allow Quebec to use federal transfers as it sees fit.

Quebec is the only province with such latitude in federal health transfers, he added.

"Since 2004 it's been a major gain for Quebec and this is still the case," he said in Saguenay, Que. "I think we can say it's even been improved. My job will always be to make sure Quebec's distinct character is recognized and highlighted in concrete fashion."

In December, the main point of contention was a federal plan to limit annual health transfer increases to three per cent a year -- half the six per cent increase set out in the last long-term agreement with the provinces.

Philpott insisted, however, that the federal government had put substantial offers on the table that she believed would change the face of health care in Canada.

Manitoba NDP MP Daniel Blaikie lamented Friday that his home province has been put the position of being the lone holdout, saying the Liberals had promised to include everyone in a national health accord.

Side deals with individual provinces are a far cry from such an accord, Blaikie said.