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Flaherty's move vitally changes healthcare

Ten or so years from now, we may look back and circle Dec. 19, 2011 as the day our healthcare system embarked on a new path. Whether it will ultimately be a good or bad path remains to be seen.

Ten or so years from now, we may look back and circle Dec. 19, 2011 as the day our healthcare system embarked on a new path. Whether it will ultimately be a good or bad path remains to be seen.

That was the day federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty dropped a bombshell on his provincial counterparts by informing them they could no longer rely on billions of new dollars in federal funding for healthcare every year.

Flaherty announced the new policy effective in 2015 without any consultation, although he had been hinting something was up for weeks prior.

The finance ministers were shell-shocked, since federal funding would drop from six per cent annual boosts to a percentage tied to the nations economic growth.

B.C. stands to lose about $250 million a year, while Alberta will see a windfall in excess of $1 billion.

Fast forward to last week, when the countrys premiers and territory leaders met in Victoria and stomped their collective feet about the new funding policy.

They are also upset by what they view as Prime Minister Stephen Harpers refusal to even talk about it.

But then a funny thing happened. The premiers did something that probably would not have happened if Flaherty hadnt arbitrarily changed the rules of the game.

The premiers agreed to launch a six-month initiative aimed at doing things better and saving money in three critical areas of the healthcare system: scope of practice, human resource management and clinical guidelines.

All three areas consume billions of dollars. Finding ways of delivering good health outcomes while saving money is desirable and necessary as treating the population gets ever more expensive.

While Canada has a national health system, how it operates differs from province to province. Rules governing what precise duties doctors and nurses perform, how much they are paid and what constitutes the proper time for medical intervention can vary depending on the province in which you reside.

All of these areas have cost implications. For example, giving nurses more responsibilities and duties instead of allocating them only to doctors costs less money, because nurses earn far less than physicians, yet the health outcomes can be just as positive.

Provinces also recruit healthcare professionals by dangling financial incentives in front of them, thus forcing other provinces to match their offers or watch those professionals leave their jurisdiction. A more unified approach linking provincial salary and fee levels would presumably save money.

And clinical guidelines which set out standard directions and approaches to allow physicians to provide appropriate care for specific conditions vary in their application from province to province, particularly when it comes to emergency care.

These guidelines not only play a major role in determining health outcomes of patients, they can also have a potentially huge impact on health-care costs.

New guidelines are often developed and are shown to be cost-effective, while maintaining strong outcomes.

A more uniform approach to clinical guidelines, where provinces spend more time learning from each other and implementing the good ideas that can emerge from changing guidelines, has financial ramifications for provincial healthcare systems.

The premiers, despite their grousing about Harper not talking to them about healthcare funding, now realize they have more power when it comes to setting the standards and rules of the healthcare system.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.