Federal budget: Nurses praise federal government commitment to dental care, child care and co-op housing; insufficient increase in health transfers and lack of attention to climate emergency deeply concerning

On April 8 RNAO issued the following media release in response to the federal budget.

Toronto, April 8, 2022. The federal government has tabled a budget that lives up to its recent commitments to provide a dental care program as part of its “confidence and supply” agreement with the New Democratic Party (NDP). With funding promised to cover children under 12 within this budget year, the program will be a major advancement for medicare in Canada, according to the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO).

Lauded by nurses is the decision to move ahead with funding to reduce child care costs by 50 per cent by the end of 2022 and to evolve to an average of $10 per day by 2026, as well as prioritize non-profit operators. Like most parents, nurses struggle to find spots for their kids.

Nurses also applaud funding of $5.3 billion for a three-year plan that will ensure children in low income families have access to oral care, something RNAO CEO Dr. Doris Grinspun says “is essential for a person’s health and well-being.” The budget also detailed plans to expand the program to other underserved Canadians, including people under 18, people who live with a disability and seniors. “We are thrilled to see a commitment to dental care for families whose income is less than $90,000 per year, with no co-payments for families earning below $70,000,” adds Grinspun.

While it is disappointing that the budget commits no new funds for a national pharmacare program, RNAO looks forward to seeing a pharmacare bill in 2023, and to the establishment of the long-promised Canadian Drug Agency to develop a national essential drug formulary to carry out bulk drug purchasing. The modest commitment of $100 million over three years to help Health Canada deal with the opioid crisis is also welcome. However, RNAO had hoped for a greater commitment to ensure a safe supply of drugs and decriminalization, noting that the opioid crisis has robbed countless families across Canada of their loved ones.

Additional funding measures nurses were hoping for from the government include a robust increase in health transfers. “The commitment to an increase of 4.8 per cent falls short of what’s needed to bring the national contribution to 35 per cent of total health expenditures,” says Grinspun. And, although “we welcome the one-time investment of $2 billion to help clear surgical backlogs, RNAO is disappointed that this commitment does not sufficiently address the acute human resources crisis in health care, particularly in the nursing profession. Health-care workers continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic. Without addressing the nursing shortage, services for Canadians will continue to suffer and the surgical backlog will not be resolved,” says Grinspun.

RNAO welcomes that the federal budget prioritizes housing – a critical determinant of health – by allocating $1.5 billion to build the next generation of co-operative housing. RNAO’s President Morgan Hoffarth says “We join the Co-Operative Housing Federation of Canada in celebrating the first investment in co-op communities in 30 years. We urge the government to continue finding ways to speed the development of affordable and accessible housing to remedy the crisis for the hundreds of thousands of persons living in homelessness in Canada, one of the richest countries in the world.”

The association is also pleased that the budget contains measures to increase the government’s capacity to support important and necessary expenditures. For example, increases in revenue from the banking and life insurance sector are proposed through a one-time recovery dividend and a permanent increase in corporate tax rates. Also welcome are measures to reduce tax avoidance, including $1.2 billion over five years for the Canada Revenue Agency to pursue people who avoid paying taxes and limit the ability of federally-regulated financial institutions to use tax havens. RNAO says these measures are needed to ensure stable government revenues, reduce deficits and pay for necessary health, environmental and social programs.

The budget also contains some major sources of disappointment. One is its failure to offer concrete details on how it will help improve long-term care (LTC), despite an agreement with the NDP pledging to do just that two weeks ago. Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed he would fix this sector with help from the provinces, the budget does not shed light on any strategy to do so. Hoffarth says “Canada desperately needs to help improve the lives of seniors across this country. Thousands of families lost their loved ones needlessly. The federal government has to take the lead on this and we are appalled that seniors and hard-working nurses and other health-care staff who work in this sector have been let down again.”

And, despite dire warnings from the United Nations’ (UN) International Panel on Climate Change, the budget misses the opportunity to take more meaningful and urgent action on climate change. “We are at such a crucial time in our lives and in the lives of our children and grandchildren. The measures put forth do not come to terms with the catastrophic consequences of inaction on global warming,” says Hoffarth.

One major concern RNAO has with the budget’s approach to climate change is the expansion of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry under the controversial “carbon capture investment tax credit.” Another is the recent approval of the Bay du Nord oil project. This commitment to a massive new infrastructure project is perplexing at a time when UN Secretary General António Guterres says investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is “moral and economic madness.”