A year ago palliative care was totally ignored in the new government’s debut budget. It was a notable slight after the Liberals had promised to inject $3 billion into home and palliative care over four years. But in a classic example of better late than never, their second budget, released March 22, has doubled the total commitment to $6 billion, but spread it over 10 years.
Exactly when those funds will start to flow and how they will be allocated remain unanswered questions. Indeed, the budget signalled no sense of urgency. Palliative care was mentioned briefly on page 158 of a 278-page document in a sentence that said, “Canadians can expect improved access to home, community and palliative care services.” The only other mentions related to a separate $184-million, five-year investment in home and palliative care services for First Nations and Inuit.
Yet it was a positive week for palliative-care advocates. A day before the budget, a private member’s bill on palliative care moved closer to becoming law when it won unanimous approval from a House of Commons committee. The bill, introduced by Conservative Marilyn Gladu, mandates the development of a national palliative-care framework. It had previously received all-party approval on second reading and now seems a safe bet to pass third reading in the House and then Senate approval, making it law perhaps before the summer recess.
With a law in the books and budget funding in place, the vital work to improve the dreadful state of palliative care in Canada can begin in earnest. Estimates say up to 70 per cent of Canadians have no access to the type of end-of-life services provided by palliative caregivers. Instead, their final days are typically lived, at significant public expense, in hospitals which often lack the resources to properly support palliative patients.
This situation was never acceptable but it became particularly unjust last year when Canada legalized medically-assisted death. We became a nation which granted those who are suffering and facing a foreseeable death the right to be killed but denied them an equal right to access quality end-of-life palliative care.
The almost overnight legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide was sold as giving people a choice. But what kind of choice is it if the only option to assisted death is living your dying days without care or with inadequate care?
That’s why the creation of a national palliative care network is so important. Now that the money is starting to arrive, it’s time to get on with it. In a hurry.