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February 5, 2003

Signs point to new deal on health care

OTTAWA - A table was laid at 24 Sussex Drive on Tuesday night for the prime minister, the premiers and territorial leaders to break bread and talk health care.

The two-day gathering in Ottawa is aimed at resolving federal-provincial differences on what Canadians tell them is a crucial issue.

The federal government is determined to impose an accountability mechanism on the provinces to ensure that health care funding is applied to specific targets.

The provinces and territories agreed that funding must be boosted, but many are resisting Ottawa's efforts to hold them responsible for how the money is spent.

Before the dinner Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was optimistic, convinced that an agreement to ensure the long-term viability of Canada's health care system is just a few hours away.

"At the end, we'll have an agreement," he told reporters Tuesday.

Even Quebec Premier Bernard Landry was sounding conciliatory. "I think we will have a rather easygoing conference," he said, "and it is my deepest wish."

Ottawa's promise to give the provinces a lot more money for health care has certainly eased the mood.

The federal government may even be prepared to match Roy Romanow's recommendation of almost $28 billion in new money over five years.

But in exchange, for the federal cash the provinces must agree, at least in principle, to meet Ottawa's ambitious reform targets, in three key areas:

Some provinces say those targets are unrealistic.

"We don't want to have doctors play tiddlywinks at 3 a.m.," said Nova Scotia Health Minister Jane Purves, pointing out that Ottawa's plan may not be feasible in some provinces.

Provinces, especially smaller ones, say they still need money for the basics, like hospitals, doctors and nurses – before investing in expensive reforms.

"We have to fix the roof that is leaking first before we build the pool," said New Brunswick's Bernard Lord. "If the federal government says 'No, I'm only giving you money to build a pool,' we'll build a pool. But we'll make sure everybody knows we didn't get money to fix the roof."

There does seem to be progress on Ottawa's key demand for a monitoring mechanism. Provinces that at first balked at the idea of a new mechanism to monitor their health spending are coming around.

Newfoundland Premier Roger Grimes says it's "something we can live with."

On Wednesday, the first ministers will open their formal discussions. It now appears there may be a new health deal in place when the meeting ends.