OTTAWA (AP) _ Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and the country's provincial and territorial leaders signed a US$31.6 billion (C$41 billion, euro26 billion) deal early Thursday to cut hospital waiting times and improve health care over the next decade.
The agreement marked the end of three days of talks between Martin and the provincial and territorial leaders aimed at securing an election promise Martin made in June to ``fix medicare for a generation.''
The total funding was some 50 percent higher than Martin first offered, a sign he was eager to conclude a deal seen as vital to his political success. He called it ``a 10-year plan, a deal for a decade that will lead to better health care for all Canadians.''
In exchange, the provinces agreed to Ottawa's demands for reforms aimed at reducing waiting times for medical procedures such as cardiac and cancer care and joint replacements. They agreed to set targets for acceptable wait times by Dec. 31, 2005.
Canada's socialized medical program covers most treatments for all citizens. Private health care is allowed in some cases but is mostly prohibited by federal law. Health care spending is traditionally a provincial/territorial responsibility, but those governments rely on billions of dollars in federal funding to redistribute wealth to poorer areas such as the Atlantic coast.
The new accord commits Ottawa to spending US$3.5 billion (C$4.5 billion, euro2.9 billion) over six years to reduce wait times for treatment, US$2.7 billion (C$3.5 billion, euro2.2 billion) over two years in additional money, and billions more to boost federal spending six percent annually to keep up with spiraling health costs.
Although the provinces were pleased with the final deal, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he could see returning to ask for more money before the decade is over.
``There are still enormous challenges ahead. Today, we have made progress,'' McGuinty said.
By allowing Quebec to fashion its own wait-list reduction plan, Martin protected Quebec Premier Jean Charest against charges by Quebec nationalists of permitting federal intrusion into a jealously guarded provincial jurisdiction.
Roy Romanow, who headed the 2002 royal commission on health care, gave the deal a good review.
``This is, I think, a very positive step forward for reform. I have no doubt about that,'' he said.
Observers from the Canadian Medical Association said the funding boost restores _ and surpasses _ federal cuts imposed in the mid-1990s. Ironically, Martin was the finance minister who imposed those cuts in an effort to erase the federal deficit.
One casualty of the deal was a proposed national drug plan, which the premiers estimated would cost some US$49 billion (C$64 billion, euro40 billion).