Thank you, Minister Clement, for that kind introduction.
And thank you for this warm welcome, ladies and gentlemen.
It’s a great pleasure to address your distinguished gathering today.
This is the fourth year in a row that you – healthcare professionals, academics and administrators from across Canada – have met to discuss the "taming of the queue."
When you first met in 2004, timely access to medical services had become the number one concern of Canadians and their health care providers.
Small wonder: during the preceding decade, patient wait times had almost doubled.
Canadians were suffering and dying in the queues.
Victims and their families were furious, and public confidence in the Canadian healthcare system was at an all-time low.
Whatever the cause of this crisis in the health system, it was widely and rightly seen by Canadians as a betrayal of their relationship with government.
In return for paying their taxes, they had been promised a universal public health insurance system that would provide them with timely, high-quality service when they needed it.
But governments weren’t holding up their end of the bargain.
Instead, Canadians were waiting in ever-lengthening queues for urgently needed diagnostics, treatment and surgery.
Most suffered in silence.
Some, who could afford it, left the country to get the care they needed, and some took their governments to court.
One of these legal challenges led to the landmark Chaoulli decision in Quebec.
The 2005 Supreme Court of Canada ruling confirmed what everyone knew.
As Chief Justice McLachlin herself wrote, "access to a waiting list is not access to health care."
Making patients suffer and die on waiting lists without an alternative is not just a betrayal of the unwritten contract between the taxpayer and the state; the court said it is a violation of their basic human right to security of the person.
Most of the healthcare professionals in this room, I suspect, saw all this coming long before it wound up in court.
And at your first taming of the queue conference in 2004, you helped focus government and public attention where it needed to be focussed: on the need for wait time measurement, monitoring and management.
I am very pleased to note that, four years later, your efforts have started to bear fruit.
Patient wait times in Canada have reversed direction and have stopped getting longer.
On behalf of all Canadians, I want to thank you and all your colleagues in the Canadian medical community for all the work you’ve done to turn things around.
But I know, as you know, that we still have a long way to go.
During the last federal election campaign, our party made a clear and unequivocal commitment to Canadians.
We promised to work with the provinces to develop patient wait times guarantees.
We vowed that they would be based on the recommendations of the bi-partisan Senate committee co-chaired by Liberal Michael Kirby and Conservative Marjory LeBreton.
We said such guarantees must ensure that patients receive treatment for a publicly insured service within a medically acceptable maximum time.
And we said they must have the option of receiving treatment outside their home region if it’s not available locally.
The patient wait times guarantee was one of our top five election commitments.
As soon as our Cabinet was sworn into office, Canada’s new Health Minister Tony Clement launched negotiations with the provinces and territories.
None of my ministers had a tougher assignment.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone here how complex the issue of wait times is. And if you multiply it by 13, you get some sense of Tony’s challenge.
But as the former Minister of Health for Ontario, he knew many of the provincial players and understood the issues from their perspective.
In short, there was no one better qualified for the job.
And today, I am very pleased to announce that Minister Clement has succeeded in his mission: all 13 provinces and territories have now committed to providing the first patient wait times guarantees.
More than $1 billion in funding to support these agreements will be provided by our 2007 budget, which is currently moving through Parliament.
The funding will be divided between main two initiatives.
Both will contribute to our ultimate goal of improving Canadian healthcare by making it more efficient and accessible.
The first initiative is our patient wait times guarantees trust.
It will provide direct financial support to help the provinces and territories deliver on their guarantees.
As a result, Nova Scotians, Manitobans and Albertans battling cancer will soon obtain more timely radiation treatment.
Ontarians will face a shorter wait for cataract surgery, and Quebecers waiting for a hip or knee replacement will have access to more timely care.
The trust funds will also support wait times pilot projects that will lay the groundwork for future guarantees on other essential health services.
The second initiative is a substantial investment in health information and communication technologies, through the Canada Health Infoway.
This independent, non-profit organization, to which all 14 federal, provincial and territorial governments belong, is leading the way toward full digitization of Canadians’ health records and a national health information management system.
This is obviously critical to the timely, efficient delivery of top-quality healthcare in our country.
Unfortunately, Canada is lagging behind other developed countries in the implementation of health info-tech.
This will likely come as a surprise to most Canadians, as seemingly every aspect of our daily lives has been digitized.
Driving records, bank accounts, even your pizza preference at your favourite take-out restaurant have all have been digitized and stored in a central data bank.
But when it comes to our x-rays and health records, chances are they’re sitting in a file folder on a shelf in a doctor’s office or a hospital.
Our investment in Infoway will help transform all that paper and film into bits and bytes so patients and their doctors have access to this essential data whenever and wherever they need it.
It will also have a profound impact on the efficiency of our healthcare system, and that, in turn, will help the provinces and territories implement a comprehensive set of patient wait times guarantees.
Ladies and gentlemen, as proud as I am of the wait times and Infoway agreements I have described today, I am even prouder of the federal-provincial cooperation that produced them.
We knew it was going to take time, persistence, and constructive relationships with the provinces and territories to get the job done.
We vowed to end the practice of federal grandstanding as the defender of the Canada Health Act while doing nothing to address the spiralling wait times crisis, or worse, while simply cutting transfers to the provinces.
We promised to respect our constitutionally enshrined areas of jurisdiction, and to work collaboratively towards our common goals, in a spirit of federalism of openness.
These have been the guiding principles in our drive to provide Canadians with the timely medically treatment they deserve.
Where we had jurisdiction over healthcare, we have sought to lead by example.
For instance, we introduced two wait times projects to improve diabetes care in First Nations communities.
And we implemented a pilot project to help on-reserve Aboriginal women get timely, quality pre-natal care.
While these initiatives were for Canadians who rely directly on Ottawa for healthcare, our government never lost sight of the ultimate goal – more timely care for all Canadians.
That’s why our government has of course taken other health care initiatives, including the following:
These are results-oriented initiatives that are going to make real, positive differences in the lives of men, women, and children across the country.
Ladies and gentlemen, you know as well as I do that when a government makes an investment in the health of people, it’s making an investment in the country’s future.
And the patient wait times guarantees we have negotiated with the provinces and territories mark yet another step forward in our government’s commitment to building a stronger, safer, better Canada for all of us.
Thank you, and until next time.