Understanding Canada's Healthcare System: A Guide to Using Government Resources

Posted on June 30, 2019

Canada’s healthcare system is a source of national pride for many, but it isn’t always clear how it works.

The average Canadian family spends around $13,000 per year on healthcare in the public system. If this fact leaves you scratching your head, you’re not alone. After all, many people believe Canadian healthcare is free.

That’s clearly not the case. It’s clear many Canadians are in the dark about how the system works. Some are unsure how it compares to other countries.

Learning how the Canadian healthcare system works isn’t a bad idea. It can help you understand the coverage you have. It can also help you weigh debates about how to make sure our healthcare system stays healthy for years to come.

A great way to start learning about the system is with official government resources. All three levels of government want you to understand how healthcare works.

Our guide will help you locate the resources you need. It also serves as a primer on the system. Finally, we’ll look at other sources of information and how to check them.

How Canada’s Healthcare System Works

Before we review resources, it’s helpful to understand public healthcare in Canada.

So, how does the Canadian healthcare system work?

Contrary to popular belief, Canadian healthcare isn’t free. It’s funded by Canadian taxpayers like you.

The government looks at their revenues, which include tax collections. They then decide how much of those funds to put towards government initiatives.

The federal government usually decides the budget for healthcare. The federal government in Ottawa and the provinces and territories originally split the costs 50/50. Both the federal government and the provincial government pay into the system.

This is how you can estimate how much the average Canadian or family “spends” on the healthcare system. Since healthcare is paid for by taxes, though, you don’t need to pay when you visit the doctor. You’ve prepaid your bill by paying your taxes.

A Split Responsibility

In Canada, responsibilities are often divided between the provinces and the federal government. The Constitution guarantees provincial oversight for some areas, such as education. The federal government oversees other areas and creates laws governing the whole country.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government wanted to help Canadians live better lives. The provinces wanted to maintain their traditional authority in areas like healthcare.

The two levels of government compromised. The federal government provides block funding to the provinces. This helps them run their healthcare systems.

The federal government also sets out some minimums for a healthcare system. The provinces have to meet these minimums to receive funding. This helps guarantee some basic level of coverage for all Canadians.

Otherwise, the administration of the healthcare system is a provincial responsibility. This is why your coverage will be different depending on what part of the country you live in. Manitobans, for example, have different health care coverage than Nova Scotians.

Federal Government Resources

Now you have a quick Canadian healthcare system overview. Your next question is about where you can turn for more in-depth information on the system.

Your first stop should be a check-in with the Government of Canada. You can visit their website. You can also go to a Service Canada location to speak with a government representative.

The government’s web resources on the healthcare system are fairly extensive. Their website provides an overview of the system. It also has information about funding and health services.

You can also find information about new and proposed legislation that affects healthcare. For example, in 2018, Canada introduced the Cannabis Act. This law doesn’t affect the healthcare system, but cannabis could affect the health of Canadians.

Health Canada, the Federal Ministry of Health

Health Canada is another excellent resource. Health Canada is the federal government ministry that oversees health in Canada. It publishes Canada’s Food Guide and conducts research on public health issues.

It also provides information on government initiatives, programs,. It even reports on the federal budget for healthcare and spending.

Health Canada also consults with many external advisors and committees. These committees and councils conduct research about certain health topics. They tell Health Canada about their findings and recommend a course of action.

Current advisory bodies include the Expert Advisory Group on Marketing of Opioids.

Federal Agencies

Statistics Canada conducts research and collects statistical information about Canadians and their lives. It often publishes healthcare related information.

The Public Health Agency of Canada is another federal agency you can turn to for information. It’s involved in health promotion activities. PHAC also publishes information about epidemics and public health emergencies.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research funds health and medical research in Canada. They support research designed to improve health and the healthcare system. Their publications can provide insight into improvements to the healthcare system.

Provincial Resources

Most Canadians will be interested in the provincial resources about the healthcare system. The provinces and territories decide coverage and services within their borders.

Each provincial government has a ministry devoted to the healthcare system:

  • Department of Health (New Brunswick)
  • Department of Health and Community Services (Newfoundland and Labrador)
  • Department of Health, Seniors, and Active Living (Manitoba)
  • Department of Health and Wellness (Nova Scotia, PEI)
  • Ministry of Health (Alberta, BC, Saskatchewan)
  • Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care (Ontario)
  • Ministry of Health and Social Services (Quebec)

Each of the three territories also has a ministry of health. The ministries publish information about funding, as well as services and programs.

If you want to find out what coverage you have or could qualify for, check your provincial or territorial government’s website. You can also contact their service centers.

The provinces and territories also provide information on how to get coverage. You’ll need a health card to access most services. The provincial or territorial government provides health cards.

Most provinces will report on their programs, including new programs and services. They’ll also publish information about funding, as well as cutbacks.

Other Resources Provided by the Provinces

Each service or program provided by the government will have its own website. Many provinces have also established regional health authorities. They're responsible for administering health information in a particular part of the province.

These bodies receive funding based on the population they’re serving. They can also tailor their services to the people living in the region. The regional health authority in Northern Ontario could tailor services for Indigenous populations.

Find out more about the services and programs offered in your areas by visiting the website of your local health authority. You can also visit one of their sites.

Public health units are another resource you can access. They provide disease prevention programs and information.

Understanding Your Coverage

The Canadian healthcare system includes many government agencies, program providers, and private companies. Trying to unravel how it all works is sometimes more challenging than it should be.

If you have trouble understanding your coverage, head to a provincial government office. The staff there can often point you in the right direction. They may even have a pamphlet or other publication they can give you.

News sites and healthcare providers often offer insights into your coverage. They may provide overviews of current coverage and proposed changes as well.

A Word about Non-Government Resources

Government resources aren’t the only choice for learning about the health system. You can often find guides, overviews, and statistics from other groups.

In some cases, you may find a resource that’s reporting on government information. News sites often report on the federal government’s budget. They'll run stories about a provincial government’s planned changes to healthcare services.

Some companies do research and report on the state of Canada’s healthcare system. The Canadian Institute of Health Information (CIHI) is one. There are many others.

Sometimes, you can find insightful articles and in-depth information from healthcare providers themselves.

A healthcare insurance provider may also have excellent resources. They can often provide insight about your coverage under the Canadian healthcare system.

You should always consider where these resources are getting their information. They may be conducting original research. They may also be using government resources.

Some of these resources will also discuss solutions for the healthcare system. Double-checking information against a government source is almost never a bad idea.

Learn about Supplementing the System

If you want to know about how the Canadian healthcare system works, it’s often best to go straight to the source. The government handles the system. Their resources will contain the most up-to-date and accurate information.

Understanding your coverage under Canada’s healthcare system is the first step. Once you do, you might wonder how you can add to your coverage. For many Canadians, the answer is supplemental insurance.

Are you looking for more healthcare coverage? Take a look at our blog and discover how supplemental healthcare insurance could help you protect your health.

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