The future of Canada’s health care at stake: Maude Barlow warns of privatization and high-cost drugs

Published in the Vancouver Observer | January 17, 2012 | Circulation 100,000 unique monthly visitors

Maude Barlow photo by David P. Ball

The health care discussions by premiers in Canada is about more than about just funding, Council of Canadians national chairperson Maude Barlow warns. It’s about the very future of public health care in Canada itself. 

“We have to get the story to the Canadian people,” she said. “A lot of people don’t actually realize that what this means, if the government does this, is the end of a federal role in medicare.” 

For decades, Barlow has been a well-known Canadian advocate and commentator – on everything from stopping free trade agreements to declaring access to water a human right.

But public health care has always been one of the 64-year old activist’s hot-button issues.
 
The veteran national chairperson of the 100,000-member strong council, sporting a “Medicare” button on her grey suit jacket – sat down with the Vancouver Observer outside a pivotal meeting of the country’s provincial and territorial leaders, who are deliberating on a new national health accord as the current one expires in 2014.

“We’re looking at either extending, deepening, recommitting to our health care system, or perhaps the beginning of the end of it,” she told the VO. “Canadians need to know those are the stakes here.
 
“Stephen Harper has never liked public health care, he’s always said it belongs to the provinces, its their responsibility. He would go totally private, I’m convinced, if he could. But he can’t, because 94 per cent of us think the private system is not the one for us. He can’t do it through the front door – he has to do it by pulling the rug out from under the provinces and let them do the dirty work.”
 
Barlow said she was surprised and pleased that even B.C.’s premier, Christy Clark, who had initially praised the federal Conservatives, changed course and announced the premiers were unanimously opposed to finance minister Jim Flaherty’s unilateral decision to change Canada’s health funding formula.
 
“The one thing we’ve been saying is we need to have an agreement with all the premiers – we want to have one unanimous front,” Barlow said. “We were really nervous that wouldn’t happen.
 
“We’re pleased they’ve taken this first step – but we’re hoping they’ll up the ante if they have to.”

Confronting the Conservatives
 
So what, exactly, would upping the ante look like? For Barlow, a confrontation with the Conservatives seems at this point inevitable. Premier Clark said she believes Prime Minister Stephen Harper can be convinced to back down. But will the premiers’ unity hold out to the bitter end?
 
“I think there’s going to be confrontation needed before this is over,” Barlow said. “Let’s remember that Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty acted in a unilateral way in destroying a tradition of negotiation, and bringing in this unilateral statement.
 
“If you want to talk about confrontation, they started a confrontation that is now going to have to escalate.”
 
And the Council of Canadians believes that Harper can be forced back to the table – but it won’t just take consensus among the premiers. Citizens, Barlow argued, need to get involved in pushing their leaders to support medicare.
 
“It’s clear from the polls – whether they’re left, right or centre – Canadians actually want (our leaders) to support health care,” she said. “The prime minister has said this is done, but there’s no such thing as a done deal.
 
“All of the premiers – and the extreme majority of Canadians – don’t want this. He’s going to have to listen.”
 
Barlow – who has authored numerous books, including Blue Gold, on the global water crisis – won the Right Livelihood Award (the “alternative Nobel prize”) in 2005. Barlow became a house-hold name after the National Film Board featured her in its 1998 documentary, Democracy à la Maude – at the height of Barlow and other activists’ successful campaign to fight theMultilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI).

Higher drug prices and privatized health care

Since then, Barlow has served as the United Nations key advisor on water issues. But the bread-and-butter of her activism is educating Canadians about the dangers of the increasing influence of multinational corporations over governments. And that issue, she said, goes hand-in-hand with privatization of public services such as medicare. 

“If you take a huge chunk of the money out of public health care, something’s going to (have to) fill the void,” she said. “They’re going to have to cut corners – and start allowing and promoting privatization of some essential services.”
 
One issue that has received scant attention – in general, and certainly not at the premiers’ meetings in Victoria – is free trade. Currently, Canada is in process of signing a trade agreement with Europe, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Still under the public radar in many ways, CETA will impact health care, Barlow said, by allowing European pharmaceutical companies to effectively override standards on the approval and patenting of medications. Under the agreement, she said, Europe’s patent laws – which tend to favour drug companies and offer longer patents – must be applied in Canada as well. Barlow and other pharmaceutical advocates at the Victoria meetings warn that this would lead to higher drug costs and reduced standards to get drugs approved for market.
 
“That would increase our drug prices by about $3 billion a year,” Barlow said. “That immediately offsets any kind of cost-cutting you might want to do for health care.”
 
But CETA – alongside its regional counterpart, the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — risks having a more “insidious” effect, Barlow told VO.
 
“The longer-term, more insidious – though less obvious – effect is, as we allow more privatization of any public services, under CETA and also under NAFTA, corporations can claim the right to offer competitive services,” she said. “The more we allow privatization, the more American companies have the right to say, ‘You know, this area is privatized so you can’t keep us out.’
 
“CETA applies to not just the federal government but provincial and municipal governments — hospital spending, schools, whatever. It is really the beginning of another way of letting corporations come in and challenge the exclusive monopoly for a social program, in this case health care.”
 
Barlow is buoyed by the premiers’ newfound united front on federal involvement in health care, which is governed by the national Canada Health Act, even though provinces maintain responsibility for providing health care.
 
But it will take more people than just the premiers to push for better public health care.
 
“We have to find a very clear, simple way to say that to people so they can put pressure on their MLAs, their MPPs, their Members of Parliament,” she said.
 
Barlow’s message may not have yet been heard widely in the media. But for her, the vision is also long-term – and her group is working towards making health care the primary election issue in 2015.
 
When VO asked her earlier this week what she will do if the premiers cannot succeed in reversing Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision, Barlow simply smiled.
 
“We’re not going to let him do it,” she said. “We’re here to stand on guard for our health care system in this country.”

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