The new leader of the Canadian Medical Association is calling out the government of Stephen Harper for its inaction on health care, saying the medicare system is floundering and Canadians are “tired of excuses as to why the federal government can’t take action.”

Dr. Chris Simpson said some “brave leadership” is required to fundamentally reshape the health system to reflect the changing needs of an aging population, and it should come from Ottawa.

“There is a failure of our system to recognize how our country has changed,” he told delegates in his inaugural address to the CMA general council meeting in Ottawa on Tuesday. “Our system doesn’t deliver the quality of care it should. It doesn’t deliver the timeliness that it should. And it doesn’t deliver the value for money that it should. Canadian patients deserve better. We all deserve better.”

Simpson said given the challenges posed by the aging baby-boomer demographic, the starting point for health-care reform needs to be creating a comprehensive seniors’ strategy.

He said that, while he recognizes the constitutional niceties – namely that health-care delivery is principally a provincial responsibility – the “constitutional construct we have had for too long served as an excuse for the federal government to be absent from the table.”

Ottawa should not usurp provincial responsibilities, he said, but it still has a role as a co-ordinator and unifier and “federal leadership has never been needed more than it is today.” The CMA president said that while the group is non-partisan, Canada’s 80,000 doctors will assist any and all political parties that commit to implementing a comprehensive seniors’ strategy.

Citing a poll commissioned by the CMA, he said voters have grave concerns and 95 per cent of them want a seniors’ strategy.

The Ipsos survey of Canadians age 45-plus showed that 78 per cent of those polled are worried they will not be able to access necessary health services, and 81 per cent also expressed worries about the quality of the care they will be get.

Simpson said those fears are justified given the state of Canadian health care. He cited a recent report from the Commonwealth Fund that shows Canada’s health system ranks next to last (after the United States) on virtually every measure of quality and access. The top-ranked countries were Britain, Switzerland and Sweden.

“What do these successful countries have that we don’t?” Simpson asked.

The answer, he said, is that they have three key traits in common: “They have a clear commitment to quality improvement, with goals and targets; they have buy-in and leadership from doctors; and they have strong leadership from a committed federal or national government.”

What Canada has, by comparison, is a system that was fashioned to meet the acute-care needs of a young population in the 1950s that is now trying to meet the chronic-care needs of an aging population, and has no clear plan to change.

Simpson said Canada’s seniors – especially those with multiple chronic conditions – lack proper primary care and end up in overcrowded emergency rooms and hospitals by default, and at great expense.

“We put people in beds instead of putting them in a care environment that lifts them up and restores them and helps them live a dignified life,” he said.

This warehousing of seniors means health-care delivery costs at least $2.3-billion a year more than if care were provided in a more humane fashion, in a community setting, Simpson said. He noted too that only 16 per cent of Canadians have access to quality palliative care at end-of-life.

“It seems crazy, doesn’t it?” he said. “No one would ever design a health system like we have now.”

Fixing the way care is delivered to seniors is the crucial first step toward fixing the health system more generally, Simpson said.

In an address to the CMA general council on Tuesday morning, Thomas Mulcair, Leader of the Official Opposition, also slammed Mr. Harper’s government for its indifference to health care.

“We face a government here in Ottawa that is more interested in defunding public health care than protecting it,” he said.

Mulcair said a New Democratic Party government would restore the cuts to health-transfer payments that have been implemented.

“Money may not be the solution for every problem facing our health-care system,” he said, “but it is definitely a necessary precondition.”

Editor’s note: A poll cited by Canadian Medical Association president Chris Simpson in this story was conducted by Ipsos. An earlier version of this story identified it as a Nanos poll.

The Globe and Mail (includes correction)
Published Wednesday, Aug. 20 2014, 7:23 PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Aug. 21 2014, 7:54 AM EDT