Cuts to health advocacy in Canada: Part of a troubling trend?

The Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) issued a press release today announcing that Health Canada will be cutting funding to the Health Council of Canada (HCC) as of March 2014. Founded in 2003 as part of an agreement between the federal government and the provincial and territorial premiers, the council has served as an independent assessor of the Canadian health care system. Its primary duty has been to monitor the spending of two accords between the federal and provincial governments, which respectively provided $24-billion and $41-billion for health care. Through its work it has also identified health inequities in Canada. This has included the publication of “general progress reports and themed reports on Aboriginal health, wait times, home and community care, health indicators and other topics” (CMAJ, 2013). The HCC has advocated for an approach to improving the health of the population through addressing the root causes of inequitable health outcomes, such as poverty. The HCC accomplishes this work with a relative modest sum. At the time of the announcement, the federal government funding for the HCC with $6.5-million per year, an amount that is hardly notable in the context of the entire federal budget. To put this figure in perspective, the Canadian government recently spent $21-million on ads promoting its Economic Action Plan in one year alone.

The federal government has argued that the cuts are justified on the basis that the HCC’s ten-year mandate is coming to an end in 2014. Moreover, some have argued that the council has been ineffectual in its assessment of the accords’ implementation. André Picard of The Globe and Mail posits that the council has been unable to adequately assess changes in wait times and that its efforts to highlight inventive health-care projects have not resulted in their implementation elsewhere in the country.

However, the cuts to the HCC appear to be part of a troubling trend in the relationship between the federal government and institutions that serve as essential resources. Since the election of the Conservative government in 2006, we have witnessed cuts in funding for other organizations and agencies that provide important data on health and demographics in Canada, such as the recent reduction in funding for Statistics Canada. The elimination of the mandatory long-form census back in 2010 was another major blow to researchers working in a variety of fields.

To take an unabashedly political stance, I would argue that the cutting of funding to the HCC represents an effort to silence those who do not agree with the current government’s priorities. There is certainly no lack of precedent: the ongoing muzzling of federal government scientists and the recent closure of the experimental lakes area are two excellent examples of this effort.

The degradation in data quality—or the complete lack thereof—that results from cuts to organizations and agencies such as the HCC or Statistics Canada makes it harder for those in both primary care and public health to advocate for evidence-based interventions. I strongly believe this will detrimentally affect the health of the country and put additional strain on public health agencies as they seek ways of filling this newfound data gap in a time of fiscal austerity. As current and future public health practitioners we should find these cuts troubling and make efforts to lobby not only our federal representatives, but also to raise awareness in the general public about these cuts and what their implications are for health in Canada.

Dominic

Canadian Medical Association Journal. (2013). Advocates decry health council’s demise.   Retrieved from http://www.cmaj.ca/site/earlyreleases/18apr13_advocates-decry-health-councils-demise.xhtml.

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