Canada’s health sector faces a once-in-a-century challenge. Over a year and a half since COVID-19 reshaped our lives, the crisis continues to evolve. The pandemic’s impacts will be felt for years, perhaps decades, to come.

And yet the 44th federal election produced a result that looked very much like the 43rd. The numbers obscure enormous social, economic and political shifts since that last election, and no sector has felt it more than health care.

What does it all mean? We wanted to find out, so we hosted an expert panel to discuss What’s Next for the Health Sector. We were joined by Dr. Isaac Bogoch, Infectious Disease Consultant and General Internist at Toronto General Hospital; Former Ontario Deputy Minister of Health and Long-Term Care Dr. Bob Bell; H+K’s National Health + Wellness Sector Lead, Michelle McLean; and H+K’s National Public Affairs + Advocacy Lead, Will Stewart.

Here’s what we learned:

1. The line between federal and provincial governments in health care is blurring.

The pandemic cast in relief Canada’s difficulty mounting a national response to a national health challenge. Now the federal government is more invested in care than ever – and wants a say in how its dollars are spent. Provinces, meanwhile, continue to resist “strings attached” funding transfers, though it’s hard to walk away from money on the table. Upcoming Ontario and Quebec elections could further complicate the relationship. Going forward, health sector players need to engage both levels of government.

2. Minority government can shift health priorities – including pharmacare.

The Liberals’ uncertain hold on power puts them in constant campaign mode, elevating politically popular ideas like child care over less “retail” policies like national pharmacare. COVID-19 – and its impact on government coffers – as well as complex inter-governmental dynamics have also helped put pharmacare on the back burner.

Some incremental progress has been made, including a recent agreement with Prince Edward Island to lower out-of-pocket drug costs. At the same time, minority government gives opposition parties greater leverage on key issues; for the NDP this includes pharmacare. While a full universal program may be unattainable, political pressure will continue to push this issue forward. On all issues, including pharmacare, it will be important for stakeholders to build relationships with all major parties.

3. Skate where the puck is going.

With another federal election expected in the next 18 to 24 months, the Liberal government needs to show progress on key commitments. To secure approval for your organization’s “ask”, it will be vital to show how your request helps the federal government achieve its agenda. Stakeholders should think: how can we show that our objectives align with government priorities?

4. It is hard, but essential, to communicate uncertainty.

When it comes to COVID-19, the goal posts keep moving because the disease keeps evolving. This is a huge challenge for communicators, especially as people tire of restrictions and the pandemic stokes fear and division. Whether it’s government officials, public health experts, or companies keeping their workers and customers informed, the ability to build trust while managing expectations in an uncertain time is needed more than ever. So are new voices and ways of speaking – it’s not enough to rely on experts and old assumptions.

5. COVID-19 is here to stay.

Emerging variants have scuttled dreams of herd immunity. The shift from pandemic to endemic will be gradual, happening at different times in different places. In the meantime, vaccination passports, rapid testing, mask mandates, social distancing, and vaccine inequities will continue to pose evolving challenges for business. Work and consumer behaviour – to say nothing of health care itself – will never be the same.

A minority government in an unfolding pandemic means policy flux and change, with all the threats and opportunities that come with it. At H+K, our experts in policy, communications, advocacy and public affairs are on top of the latest developments in politics and COVID-19 – and, more crucially, we are always looking around the corner to see what’s next for health care.