Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he has fulfilled his pledge to establish medical wait-times guarantees across Canada, but critics say the deal falls short of his campaign promise.

"Today I am very pleased to announce that Minister Clement has succeeded in his mission," Harper said at an Ottawa wait-times conference.

"All 13 provinces and territories have now committed to providing the first patient wait-times guarantees."

The creation of a wait-times guarantee was one of the Conservatives' five priorities in the last election campaign.

But the deal does not come into effect until 2010, and provinces only have to promise timely treatment in one of several priority areas:

  • Cancer care
  • Hip and knee replacement
  • Cardiac care
  • Diagnostic imaging
  • Cataract surgeries

The Conservatives had promised in the last federal election campaign that they would ensure guarantees in all of the above areas.

"If we focus on one part of the continuum, we're just shuffling chairs on the deck," said Dr. Chris Simpson of the Canadian Cardiovascular Society.

Meanwhile, the president of the Canadian Medical Association argued the more doctors and nurses will be needed to make the wait-times guarantees effective.

"The bottom line is, you can have all the benchmarks and all the standards, but unless you have the professionals in place to do the job, it won't be done," Dr. Colin McMillan told CTV's Mike Duffy Live.

Harper said the promise will be kept through two initiatives.

The first measure is a fund that will provide financial support to the provinces and territories to create their guarantees for one of the five areas.

"As a result, Nova Scotians, Manitobans and Albertans battling cancer will soon obtain more timely radiation treatment, Ontarians will face shorter waits for cataract surgery," Harper said.

In the federal budget released on March 19, $612 million was set aside for the provinces and Ottawa to pay for the initiative and $30 million was set aside for wait-times pilot projects.

The second initiative will focus on investing in health information and communication technologies through the Canada Health Infoway. In the March budget, $40 million was set aside to fund Infoway.

"This independent, non-profit organization to which all 14 federal and provincial territorial governments belong -- that doesn't happen very often -- is leading the way towards full digitization of Canadians' health records and a national health information management system," Harper said.

The measure, he said, will help make electronic medical records available to doctors wherever and whenever they need it.

"This will have a profound impact on the efficiency of our healthcare system and that, in turn, will help the provinces and territories implement a comprehensive set of Patient Wait Times Guarantees," he said in a release.

Wednesday's announcement may be one more indication that a federal election is in the offing.

Health Minister Tony Clement had been expected to appear at the Ottawa conference, dubbed "Taming of the Queue," on his own, but news emerged that Harper would be showing up instead.

Harper's election campaign included five key promises, one of which was to establish wait-time guarantees for some medical procedures.

Under the proposal, patients who didn't receive treatment in a timely fashion would be sent to other jurisdictions for treatment, or would be treated at private clinics with the government paying the bill.

Harvey Voogd of the Alberta-based Friends of Medicare group told The Canadian Press the provinces would likely sign up for an area they have already been working to address.

"No government's going to walk away from a pot of money," Voogd said.

"Nobody has signed on to a difficult wait time, all have signed up for wait times they're already beavering away at or successfully meeting.

But Voogd said the government's plan is mostly pre-election posturing.

A failure to fulfill the wait-times promise could give the Opposition ammunition against the Conservatives in an election.

With a report by CTV's Roger Smith in Ottawa