By BRIAN LAGHI
Globe and Mail Update
Montreal Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien admitted Tuesday that he deserves some of the blame for the flourishing of private health-care facilities in Canada.
The admission, which came just one day after he threatened the provinces with penalties if they don't put the brakes on the clinics, triggered sharp rejoinders from other party leaders as well as Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard.
"It's not strictly a problem with the provincial governments," Mr. Chrétien told a radio talk show in Montreal. "I accept my part of the responsibilities, and they are very important."
On Monday, Mr. Chrétien threatened to cut health transfer payments to Alberta and Quebec after evidence surfaced that some patients in those provinces are paying for diagnostic services performed by magnetic resonance imaging machines, or MRIs, out of their own pockets. He said that the federal government is helping to remedy the problem by funding the purchase of more machinery and enforcing the Canada Health Act.
"I am certain that the plan negotiated by [Health Minister] Allan Rock and financed by [Finance Minister] Paul Martin under my guidance will definitely help people to have hope. They see now that the government is taking care of the problem. We don't run away from the problem."
New Democrat Leader Alexa McDonough pounced on Mr. Chrétien's admission.
"Only in the heat of this election and under fire did Mr. Chrétien acknowledge his responsibilities under the Canada Health Act," she said at a news conference in front of the King's Health Centre in Toronto, a private clinic whose owners fled the country and are charged with defrauding the facility of more than $3-million.
Meanwhile, Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day criticized Mr. Chrétien for trying to enforce the Canada Health Act unilaterally. In an interview on CBC Television, Mr. Day said Mr. Chrétien appeared to be making up policy on the fly by suddenly suggesting the clinics are violating the federal law.
"You can't just change your policy overnight, contradict your health minister and try to grab a few quick votes by saying 'I'm going to shut these things down,' " Mr. Day said.
Mr. Bouchard said Mr. Chrétien was playing politics with the health-care crisis and has no right to withhold funds from Quebec.
"It's purely a political manoeuvre coming from a politician who has been losing speed," Mr. Bouchard said. "The election is slipping through his fingers and he is resorting to a diversion which he has chosen to use against Quebec and Alberta."
Mr. Bouchard said that his province plans to end the need for privately provided MRI services by purchasing more equipment in next year.
Radio host Jean Lapierre told Mr. Chrétien that he has personally been to private clinics to relieve the anxiety of waiting within the publicly funded system, and that several Liberals have also paid out of their own pockets to get quicker health-care services.
Mr. Chrétien responded that he too has spoken to doctors in his home riding of Shawinigan, Que., who have expressed concern about the system. Despite admitting Ottawa's role in the growth of private health clinics Tuesday, Mr. Chrétien did not back down from his suggestion that Quebec and Alberta face the possibility of penalties if they don't outlaw the practice.
"We have asked two governments, where there was some indications that they were not respecting, that they are looking into it in the province," he said. "I presume they will want to respect the five conditions of medicare. If you ask me if they don't, what would happen, I've already told already."
Mr. Rock wrote to the governments of Quebec and Alberta in September expressing concern about the fact that patients have been circumventing waiting lists by paying for tests themselves. Mr. Chrétien said Monday that provinces that don't use the $1-billion technical fund will face penalties under the Canada Health Act. Asked why he waited until the campaign to act, Mr. Chrétien noted that Mr. Rock's letters were written in September.
"The issue has been on the table for some time and, of course, during the campaign people are using it," he said.
Mr. Chrétien was in Quebec to shore up Liberal support, because recent polls say the party's popularity is starting to sag there. Tuesday, he told a group in the Montreal-area community of Saint-Timothée that the Bloc Québécois is interested only in opposing legislation and that the province would have significantly more influence within Parliament if it elected more Liberals.
Later in the day, he was also forced to respond to the announcement of two new bridges in the area costing more than $300-million. He shrugged off suggestions that the bridges are an effort to buy votes in Quebec. "The local members are saying we have a problem," he said. "It's nothing we can run away from."
The bridges will cut through a riding west of Montreal that is currently represented by Bloc Québécois MP Daniel Turp.
With reports from Shawn McCarthy, Rhéal Séguin and Heather Scoffield