OTTAWA -- Canada's premiers will line up to demand more health funding from Prime Minister Paul Martin when they convene for a first ministers conference in Ottawa at the end of the month, CP has learned. The meeting has tentatively been scheduled for Jan. 29-30.
Sources say the provinces are unswayed by Martin's attempt to paint a bleak financial portrait while preparing his federal budget. Federal officials claim they're scouring the books just to find the $2 billion they have already promised the provinces for health-care transfers.
But the premiers are shrugging off that money as a done deal and have already begun looking ahead to the next funding boost.
"One thing is clear: When it (the meeting) happens, we'll be talking about health funding," said one provincial source who declined to be identified.
"The idea is to meet him before the budget so that provincial priorities are reflected in it."
He said the provinces will be pushing for a return to the pre-1995 funding levels that existed until Martin, then finance minister, slashed health transfers to help balance the federal budget.
As the provinces gazed longingly at swelling federal coffers in subsequent years, health funding became the single most divisive issue within the federation.
Martin has promised to put a stop to the perpetual squabbling that dominated federal-provincial meetings under predecessor Jean Chretien and to usher in a new era of co-operation.
But his intentions will come face to face with the cold reality that the provinces crave additional cash to get hospitals running smoothly.
Improving health care is not only the premiers' top priority, but the top priority for voters, according to many opinion polls.
"It's still issue No. 1 for Canadians," New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord told CBC TV yesterday. "And I think there's still work to be done there."
The premiers asked to state their case at a pre-budget meeting and the prime minister agreed during an informal get-together before the Grey Cup game in Regina last November.
Sources say the conference will be held Jan. 29-30, but the Prime Minister's Office would only confirm yesterday that a meeting is imminent.
A royal commission report on the future of health care by former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow recommended last year the federal government should pay 25 per cent of the bill for medicare.
According to the provinces, the federal government currently pays about 16 per cent of the total for health care across Canada and would need to provide an additional $3 billion to reach the target.