Pushing for a pan-Canadian strategy on palliative care

Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins-James Bay

Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins-James Bay

They say Canadians aren’t very good at talking about death. And yet, as I travel the country talking about palliative care I find that Canadians have a lot to say. The problem is that politicians haven’t been very good at listening.

This past spring, however, the New Democratic Party succeeded in having Motion 456 adopted by Parliament. The motion calls on the federal government to work with the provinces and territories to establish a pan-Canadian palliative care strategy. Such a strategy will go a long way to ensuring that we have systems in place to improve outcomes for patients and families. And yet, despite this historic vote, a great deal of work needs to be done.

Across Canada, palliative care exists as a patchwork of services. Only 16-30 per cent of Canadians are able to access quality palliative or hospice care. For others, it can mean the experience of a stressful late night emergency trip to a hospital while the staff scramble to find a bed. Such situations can be extremely traumatic for the patient and for the family.

I put my motion forward to discuss our shared Canadian values of a compassionate and caring health-care system that is centered on the individual and the family. It is about creating a truly healing system of care. Our proposal is about supporting the dedicated front-line workers, families, and volunteers who are doing the hard work for Canadians facing the end of their lives.

Palliative care is about ensuring that the medical teams are integrated with the home care, family support and spiritual care givers. The improvements in quality of life for patients and families are demonstrable. And the failure to put in place a holistic response to patients with life-threatening illnesses costs the system enormous amounts of money. It can reduce costs for end-of-life care by 50 per cent or more.

I have seen amazing grassroots models for providing this integrated approach to care across the country. The problem is that these lessons are not being applied in a cohesive manner across Canada. Rural regions like ours in Northern Ontario face particular pressures and gaps in the system.

New Democrats believe that the federal government has a huge role to play in improving health outcomes. Our vision for a pan-Canadian strategy establishes a strong federal role in health care to provide better supports and uniform standards.

First off, the federal government has a responsibility for the delivery of health services on reserve, in the military and in prisons. Palliative options are almost non-existent in these areas. This is certainly an area where the feds should show leadership.

But in addition to improving palliative options within its own jurisdiction, the federal government must play a role working with the provinces, medical experts, and a variety of stakeholders on finding the solutions that work across the country.

Showing leadership on palliative care will reverse the direction set by the Conservative government when they walked on the Health Accord earlier this year and when they abandoned (in 2007) the National Secretariat on Palliative End of Life Care. It will also be following Parliament’s leadership when my motion for a pan-Canadian strategy on palliative and end of life care received almost unanimous consent.

But having won the vote in Parliament, we now need to push the government into action. Canadians need to maintain the pressure on politicians to deliver this common sense solution and medical experts need to keep these tough conversations going. Join the discussion on palliative care – with family, neighbours and above all, with your elected politicians.

Contact MP Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins-James Bay and official opposition critic for ethics at Charlie.angus.a1@parl.gc.ca for more information on how to get involved.

Filed in: Commentary

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