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Lauren Vogel | CMAJ | Mar. 1, 2017

Parliamentarians debated next steps to a national seniors’ strategy, increased funding for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and Chinese investment in retirement homes in recent sittings of the House of Commons.

Seniors’ strategy

Marc Serré, Liberal member for Nickel Belt, Ontario, launched the first hour of debate of a private member’s motion to develop a national seniors’ strategy. He argued that Canada’s current approach to seniors’ care is unsustainable.

“By 2035, 25% of the population is projected to be 65 or older, and is expected to account for 60% of health care spending,” Serré said. “Improving efficiencies and quality of care for seniors should be a critical priority for the federal government.” He noted that more than 49 000 people have written to their members of parliament to demand a national plan as part of a Canadian Medical Association campaign.

Motion 106 asks the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development to launch a study on developing a national seniors’ strategy. The motion also requests a broader mandate for the National Seniors Council to allow that advisory body to undertake research on its own initiative. Currently, the council only provides advice “as needed” by federal ministers.

Conservative and New Democrat members supported a national strategy, but took issue with part of the motion that asks the government to “point out that it is working hard to help improve the lives of seniors.”

“We should not be sitting here and putting in a motion that says, yea, look how great we are,” said Kelly McCauley, Conservative member for Edmonton West. He and other members also argued that the motion lacked tangible outcomes. “I worry that this is an issue that gets studied to death. I really want to see some action,” said Alistair MacGregor, NDP member for Cowichan–Malahat–Langford, British Columbia.

ALS research

Members united across party lines to support a private members motion to increase research funding for ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that causes the death of more than 1000 Canadians annually. Several members reflected on the personal loss of Mauril Bélanger, former Liberal member for Ottawa–Vanier, who died from ALS in 2016.

“Our parliamentary family has been deeply touched by ALS, and all members and all parties in the House have responded by raising awareness and money,” said Judy Sgro, Liberal member for Humber River–Black Creek, Ontario, who sponsored the motion. “But without an ongoing and sustainable funding mechanism, Canada’s ALS research efforts will soon return to traditional funding levels,” about $1.5–$2 million per year, she said. “That means we are at risk of losing momentum at a time when ALS research holds more promise than ever before.”

Motion 105 calls on the government to increase research funding and “substantially increase national efforts to develop and launch a comprehensive strategy” to eradicate ALS. New Democrat health critic Don Davies urged the government to invest $25 million over five years, as requested by the ALS Society of Canada. The charity also asked the government for an additional $10 million to collect samples from Canadians with ALS to contribute to an independent genome project.

Foreign investment

Conservative opposition leader Rona Ambrose questioned why the Liberal government signed off on the sale of one of British Columbia’s biggest retirement home chains to Anbang Insurance, a Chinese company with a “murky ownership structure.”

“Last fall, several Wall Street firms, including Morgan Stanley, refused to work with Anbang Insurance, because they could not get any information on structure and ownership,” Ambrose said. Cathy McLeod, Conservative member for Kamloops–Thompson—Cariboo, British Columbia, said seniors in her riding are “concerned about the quality of care, of food, and the credentials of the people caring for them.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the decision arguing that the chain “will remain subject to provincial oversight on seniors care facilities, ensuring the rules for the care of seniors will continue to be followed, and will keep the current number of full and part-time jobs.”

In later debates, Conservative members challenged that there were no new jobs attached to the deal. Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Singh Bains neither confirmed nor denied the claim. “We did our due diligence, we looked at the job levels, and we made sure that we received good quality data around the jobs that would be secured, and also any additional resources for expansion of the facility to create new jobs.”

Pharmaceutical lobbying

The Liberals also came under fire for holding meetings with representatives of a pharmaceutical company that recently raised thousands of dollars for the party.

“The chairman of a pharmaceutical giant named Apotex held a $1500-a-person fundraiser featuring the prime minister himself, and is now lobbying the Liberal government,” said Nathan Cullen, NDP member for Skeena–Bulkley Valley, British Columbia. He alleged this contravenes a ban on lobbying within five years of fundraising. “The law says people cannot give a bunch of money to a political party on Monday and then ask for special treatment on Tuesday.”

The Minister of Small Business and Tourism, Bardish Chagger argued that the meetings were above board.  “The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner has said that no rules were broken.” However, she said, “we recognize that we can do more.”

Malaria drug safety

Cathay Wagantall, Conservative member for Yorkton–Melville, Saskatchewan, raised concerns about the safety of the anti-malarial drug mefloquine. “Veterans believe this drug is destroying their lives, causing severe depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation,” Wagantall said. “When will the prime minister join our allies, commit to a mefloquine toxicity study, and stop using mefloquine and prescribing it to our soldiers?”

Jean Rioux, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of National Defence, argued that “members of the military make personal decisions regarding malaria prevention in close cooperation with their health care professionals.” Although the use of the drug is “now the exception,” mefloquine is still “a Health-Canada-approved drug that is offered to military personnel,” he said.

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