Healthy opinions

As the federal election campaign draws near, part of the focus from political parties will inevitably revolve around health care.

In all of the pre-election debates that Canadians have been exposed to in this century, there has been an opportunity for opposition party leaders to criticize incumbents, and for prime ministers to defend what they are doing on this file.

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Under current guidelines, the federal government is responsible for funding the health-care system, while the management, organization and delivery of services is a provincial and territorial responsibility. This means that most of the discussions about health care during federal elections focus on money, while the provision of medical services is typically reserved for provincial campaigns.

Research Co. asked Canadians this month about their views on the health-care system, including their confidence in receiving timely assistance, what issues must be addressed and whether the private sector would be better positioned to deal with the medical needs of the country's residents.

For starters, most Canadians hold a middle-of-the-road opinion: three in five respondents (60 per cent) think there are some good things in the country's health-care system, but many changes are required. And while 25 per cent believe the system is running smoothly and only minor changes are required, significantly fewer residents (13 per cent) think health care in Canada should be completely rebuilt.

When asked about specific problems facing the health-care system, the federal government emerges almost unscathed. Only five per cent of Canadians point to "inadequate resources and facilities." The main hitches are, for the most part, under the purview of provincial administrations: "long wait times" (33 per cent), "bureaucracy and poor management" (24 per cent) and "shortage of doctors and nurses" (18 per cent).

In spite of their ability to identify their sources of dissatisfaction, Canadians are decidedly optimistic. Four in five respondents (79 per cent) are "very confident" or "moderately confident" that Canada's health-care system will be there to provide the help they would need were they to face an unexpected medical condition or disease.

British Columbia is ahead of all other regions on the health-care user confidence question (82 per cent), followed by Manitoba and Saskatchewan (81 per cent), Ontario (80 per cent) Alberta (78 per cent), Atlantic Canada (76 per cent) and Quebec (74 per cent).

In the weeks and months ahead, voters will be treated to Conservative Party of Canada politicians and People's Party of Canada candidates criticizing the existence of a federal deficit. Canadians are clear that any solution should not come at the expense of their medical services. A whopping 74 per cent of respondents to the survey disagree with reducing government debt by making cuts to health-care funding.

The role of the private sector in Canada's health-care system will also be debated during the federal election campaign. How to address this matter can make or break a candidacy. In 2000, the mere whiff of "two-tier health care" was enough to place Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day on the defensive.

Most Canadians (57 per cent) disagree that health care in Canada would be better than it is now if it were run by the private sector, but two in five (39 per cent) are in agreement.

-- Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

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