Charest promises to permit more private health services as Poilievre attacks his record

Another Conservative leadership candidate is pledging to end pandemic lockdowns — but Jean Charest is taking his own approach to the problem.

Rather than banning the practice of pandemic-related closures, the former Quebec premier is promising to improve the state of health care funding in Canada to the point where lockdowns would no longer be needed to protect hospitals from being overwhelmed.

Charest said he wants to accomplish this by allowing provinces the option of employing more private health care delivery. He said it would all be paid for by the provinces and insists patients would not have to cover the cost of care personally.

Charest said his emphasis on more private delivery would represent a “sea change” for Canadian health care.

As an example, Charest describes a private clinic specializing in knee and hip surgery. Under a Charest government, he said, that clinic would come to an agreement with a province to take on a set number of cases and treat the patients from the diagnostic stage through to operation and rehabilitation.

“That way, you gain in efficiency, you gain in cost and also you free up hospital beds to be able to care for people who have more serious, more complicated cases,” he said.

Charest said he wants to start by consulting with provinces on a new “Canada Healthcare Act” and then increase health care transfers to the provinces.

An emergency nurse cares for a patient at Cité-de-la-Santé hospital in Laval, Quebec. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

But he won’t say how much he’d increase those transfers. Provinces and territories have been calling on the current federal government to increase the federal share of health care spending from 22 per cent to 35 per cent.

“Yes, we do have to move it up,” Charest said. “Can we move it up to 35 per cent and move it rapidly? It will depend on our ability to pay.”

Charest is also proposing a public inquiry into the federal government’s response to the pandemic. Other candidates, including MP Marc Dalton, have also called for an inquiry — although Dalton has raised concerns about how much choice Canadians were given in the vaccination process.

Charest’s record on health care

In 2006, while premier of Quebec, Charest pledged to bring in “a new era of health care” by allowing more privately delivered care.

Poilievre has attacked the results of that effort. He sent out a tweet savaging Charest’s record on health care as “a disaster” and linking to a 2007 article that describes an average wait time of more than 16 hours in a Quebec emergency room.

Poilievre argues Charest spent money but got terrible results for patients.

In fact, Charest’s record is something of a mixed bag.

In 2012, the last year Charest was premier, the Canadian Wait Times Alliance ranked Quebec second in the country after Ontario for fastest wait times for hip, knee and cataract surgery, and for radiation treatment.

Figures published by the Quebec government for 2012, however, showed that only 79 per cent of patients were getting hip surgery within six months; the figure was 76 per cent for knee surgery.

A report by The Montreal Gazette that same year said that surgery wait times for ovarian, cervical and breast cancers in Quebec were three times longer than the government benchmark.

Charest insists his plan to rewrite health law would give provinces more flexibility to improve wait times than he had as premier, because it would open the door to more private delivery.

Poilievre points to the provinces

At a news conference in North York, Ont. on Tuesday, Poilievre was asked if he believes Canada has the right mix of public and private health care delivery.

He said it’s a question for the provinces to answer.

“The reality is that provincial governments have jurisdiction over health care and they should deliver it in the most efficient, flexible and competitive way possible,” he said.

Asked about increasing health transfers, Poilievre said that during his time in Stephen Harper’s government Ottawa raised those transfers by six per cent per year.

“We always protected health transfers and a future Poilievre government would do the same,” he said.

The Harper government’s decision to inform the provinces and territories that they would be offered a six per cent increase met with mixed results at the time. Some premiers were upset that no negotiations took place.

When Justin Trudeau became prime minister, he adopted the six per cent yearly increase.

Poilievre has pledged to end lockdowns “forever” by putting a stop to all vaccine mandates.

Brown weighs in

Asked for comment on his health care policy, leadership candidate Patrick Brown’s campaign offered a media statement.

“It’s insane that governments had to impose and rely on lockdowns to deal with a critical care system that buckled under the weight of a few hundred emergency patients during each wave of COVID — something that I routinely addressed as a GTA Mayor,” Brown said in the statement.

Conservative leadership candidate Patrick Brown. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Brown attacked Poilievre for not using his own platform to address questions about the health care system during the pandemic.

Brown’s own policy response to the issue is short on details.

“As I’ve said all along, the federal government should be working with the provinces to find ways and set clear benchmarks to deliver better care and support doctors and nurses without massively increasing the burden to taxpayers, to make sure lockdowns never happen again, “He said in the media statement.

CBC News also reached out to Leslyn Lewis’ campaign to find out more about her stance on health care, but has not yet received a reply.

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