Federal Health Minister Tony Clement told a meeting of Canada's doctors Monday that the status quo of medicare was not sustainable, and that he is open to innovation, including use of private operators to deliver health services. He had little more to say on the topic, however, suggesting that this is not Mr. Clement's priority. He spent more time extolling the virtues of his government's plan to launch a war on drug use in Canada.
Mr. Clement's speech to the Canadian Medical Association meeting in Vancouver paid just enough lip service to private and public heath care that both sides on the medicare debate could feel optimistic. The status quo is not sustainable, he said, giving cheer to those who would push greater use of private operators. Advocates of a single, universal health system found refuge in his assurances that the Conservative government will not mess with the Canada Health Act. It was a classic speech of a polished politician intent on avoiding controversy. Under this minority government, Canadians may see minimal change in a system suffering from chronic, lengthy wait times and expensive inefficiencies.
Mr. Clement's speech indicated he will focus on the easy stuff -- the agenda includes warning kids away from drug use and reviewing the Hazardous Products Act for better protections against foreign ( read Chinese ) products that can threaten people's health.
There is nothing wrong with an anti-drug campaign; parents will welcome the public support of their lectures to adolescents. For drug addicts, Mr. Clement's speech gave worrisome signs a crackdown on drug use may see the closing of Canada's only safe injection site, in Vancouver, which relies on an exemption to federal drug laws. Despite evidence that addicts are living longer and getting health care they need at the site, Mr. Clement told the CMA that to him, "harm reduction" means prevention, treatment and enforcement.
A minister in a minority government is unlikely to step into the minefield of medicare reform. In health care, progress only rarely comes in the form of radical change. But Mr. Clement should be wary of undoing the small measure of hope held out to addicts as he declares war on drug use in Canada. He needs to acknowledge the fact that some addicts will never go clean, but still deserve the best that public health can offer.
2007 Winnipeg Free Press