National Column: Health minister is one MP to watch

by Paul Wells

Nine months after Justin Trudeau’s government was sworn in, it’s becoming clearer which cabinet
ministers have begun to distinguish themselves from the rest. I’d recommend keeping an eye on Jane Philpott, the health minister.

I’ll admit that’s a bit of a challenge. She moves around a lot. Here is how Philpott stayed busy during only the second half of July.

In five days at the World AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, she delivered eight speeches, on topics ranging from mother-to-daughter HIV transmission to the “undeniable and unacceptable gaps” in health outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous populations in Canada.

Canadian health ministers usually attend the annual World AIDS Conference. But Philpott brought a rare level of sustained intensity to her visit – as befits a woman who has been fighting AIDS in Africa for 30 years, as a family doctor, a health-care administrator and a private fundraiser.

On her way home from Durban she stopped at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia to check up on the family-health program she helped establish nearly a decade ago.

Philpott was back in Ottawa for all of a day before she headed to the northern Quebec Inuit village of Kuujjuaq to announce a suicide prevention program for Inuit communities.

The national Inuit association, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, designed the program; Philpott was on hand to announce $9 million in federal funding. These programs are more effective if the affected populations take the lead in designing them, she said.

Just before her burst of travel – two long weeks ago now – Philpott deftly defused a nasty dispute between Canadian health scientists and the federal body that provides most of their funding, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Funding for the CIHR has stagnated in recent years, even as the number of applications for funding skyrocketed.

The CIHR responded by streamlining peer review, the mechanism by which researchers themselves decide which projects will be funded. The goal was to save on workload and travel costs by having peer-review panels discuss proposals online instead of meeting face-to-face.

Jim Woodgett, director of research of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, wrote a letter protesting that the quality of funding decisions was deteriorating under the new system. He posted the letter online. In a week 1,300 researchers had signed it.

Philpott could have ignored the little rebellion as an intramural turf fight among eggheads. A
government-appointed panel is already wandering around the country reviewing science policy. It was safe to assume they’d recommend the sort of changes Woodgett and his colleagues wanted, say six or eight months from now.

Philpott refused to wait. She ordered CIHR brass to meet the disgruntled researchers immediately. She sent her deputy minister and a senior staffer to attend.

By the end of the meeting, the CIHR had suspended the controversial peer-review process. Woodgett told me Philpott’s emissaries played a key role in ensuring the changes would be immediate.

Why meddle in the lab-coat uprising, I asked Philpott. “I think when a health minister gets a letter from 1,300 researchers, there’s obviously a breakdown,” she told me. “What they were asking for was not unreasonable.”

Woodgett, who is not shy about complaining about politicians, came away deeply impressed. “She acts quickly before things get out of hand or fester,” he said.

“I think she has deep respect from the medical community – in large part due to her irreproachable background and genuine care for people, whether in isolated African villages or Canada. It’s that breadth of experience that must give her confidence.”

Philpott’s confidence is getting noticed within the Trudeau government. Early on, she chaired a cabinet committee designed to meet Trudeau’s target of 25,000 Syrian refugees, and led her new colleagues with the assurance of a political veteran.

At 55, she is older than some of her colleagues in this young government. She counsels them informally on work-life balance, on management techniques, and on policy across a range of topics extending outside her own portfolio.

She is said to work well with Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff, whom she has known for less than two years. When a colleague needs help or simple encouragement, Philpott helps make it happen.

Like everyone else in this hyperkinetic government, Philpott has a tough year ahead, including potentially bruising negotiations with the provinces on health funding and reform.

It will be a sustained test for someone who is still new to the federal arena. But I suspect she’ll continue to impress.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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