Conservative health ministers fight feds over military health costs

MARKHAM, Ont. — Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised Wednesday that military personnel will not suffer as a result of a battle over money that is playing out between the federal government and the provinces, which has already elicited strong words from Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba.

Speaking at a campaign event in the Toronto-area riding of Markham-Unionville on Wednesday, Trudeau characterized the question as one of "fairness" even as he blasted Conservative politicians for trying to score points on the issue.

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"The reality is that the federal government is being charged significantly higher prices for the same services for military members as it offers to other Canadians, and we are just looking at making sure that the system is fair for everyone," he said.

"The reality is what we are looking at will not cut any services to any military members nor will it negatively impact hospitals or service providers. But we're seeing a lot of Conservative misinformation in this election campaign. Canadians need to be attentive to that."

The battle is over payments to civilian hospitals and other health-care providers when they treat service members.

The Canadian Armed Forces does provide health care to its members, but it is not uncommon for those in uniform to turn to provincial hospitals for services that are not offered or readily available within the military.

In such situations, the federal government is responsible for reimbursing the hospital in the same way that provinces reimburse each other when a resident of one seeks treatment in another.

However, Global News has reported that Ottawa has been renegotiating new reimbursement agreements with provinces, which has raised fears some hospitals, especially ones close to Canadian Forces bases that regularly treat military personnel, could lose millions of dollars.

There are also concerns some hospitals and health-care providers could start to turn away service members in need of care.

The Conservatives have latched onto the issue as an example of the Trudeau Liberals' letting down both troops and veterans.

The Department of National Defence did not respond to repeated questions on Tuesday and Wednesday, including which provinces are involved in the negotiations and whether any agreements have been signed.

Trudeau also did not say how the federal government would ensure that neither military personnel nor hospitals and health-care providers would be harmed if Ottawa pays less for services.

"We've established a working group to exactly look into that, but we have made it very, very clear that no military service members will get any cuts to services and hospitals and care providers will not be negatively impacted by this unequal treatment."

The Global report suggested hospitals in Ontario could lose $10 million in funding while Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro, of the United Conservative Party, said Wednesday that the Defence Department will pay only a fraction of the real cost of services, leaving his province with a shortfall of around $2 million.

"Now it's not a huge amount compared to the overall cost of health care," Shandro said in Edmonton. "But I'm dismayed by the way the decision was made. We weren't consulted. We had no input."

The Alberta government will not withhold services from military personnel," he added, but "the reality is that this is a unilateral cut in health-care funding from Trudeau's government to the provinces. But most of all it's disrespectful towards the Forces."

Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen, a Progressive Conservative, piled on as he also took the federal government and Defence Department to task for imposing a change that he said could cost the province as much as $1 million.

"The Canada Health Act makes very clear that members of the Armed Forces are not eligible for provincial and territorial health systems. That's why we have the regime in place," he said.

"If the federal government had an idea that they wanted to open that up for discussion, they had an obligation to speak with the provinces and territories, and they declined to do so."

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, also a Progressive Conservative, flagged her own concerns in a letter to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor in August that was obtained by The Canadian Press.

"I was surprised and extremely disappointed to learn that the federal government, through the Canadian Armed Forces, is attempting to unilaterally impose a new fee schedule for the delivery of health care to serving members and veterans," Elliott wrote.

"These changes, which were communicated without consultation, could result in either undue burden on hospitals or, worse yet, military members and veterans being charged to access health-care services. Neither of these options are acceptable."

Elliott's letter goes on to ask that the topic be addressed at the next meeting of federal, provincial and territorial health ministers.

Trudeau and the federal Liberals have repeatedly been at odds with Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta counterpart Jason Kenney, both in government and during this federal election campaign. Kenney has also campaigned with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

—with reporting by Dean Bennett in Edmonton and Steve Lambert in Winnipeg

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2019.

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