By Trevor Busch
Southern Alberta Newspapers
The status quo at Alberta Health Services isn’t working, argues Taber-Warner MLA Grant Hunter, and radically reshaping the landscape for health care in the province is both necessary and overdue.
With the announcement earlier this month that Alberta’s UCP government will be dismantling its primary health-care delivery organization into four separate entities, each with a narrower focus, critics have been vocal but Premier Danielle Smith is adamant the changes will improve access to care for Albertans grappling with a system under severe strain.
The new organizations will deliver health services in primary care, acute care, continuing care and mental health and addictions, and will be overseen by a council of politicians and senior bureaucrats.
“We’ve been concerned for some time about having one organization having to do so much,” said Hunter. “AHS will still be an entity within Alberta, but they will be responsible specifically for acute care. We have a very big emerging issue, which has been going on for some time now for a couple of years, and that’s mental health and addiction. And that has to be addressed. It has to be part of it, (and) has to be ramped up in terms of what we’re doing for those people who are suffering from mental health and addiction. And so I’m actually quite excited about what I see, I think it’s innovative within the space, I think that it will allow our innovators within the healthcare system to have more say, and more say in terms of being able to get things done. Unfortunately, as everybody knows, AHS is far too top heavy. Every single frontline worker I talked to said you have to do something about how top heavy AHS is. And so this, I think, will start to address those issues. I’m just really excited about it.”
The reforms are designed to reduce emergency room and surgery wait times, improve access to treatment, and help recruit more staff. The province expects the changes to take up to two years to complete, and will cost taxpayers $85 million just 14 years after Ed Stelmach’s PC government created Canada’s first province-wide health authority.
Hunter believes it is high time local decision making is given more prominence in the delivery of health care in Alberta, rather than a top-down regime that can’t see beyond Edmonton’s city limits.
“It’s critical. The reality is, I’ve been doing this job now for almost nine years and I just know that when you make decisions closer to the trenches, you’re going to get it right nine out of 10 times. Those decisions are made so far removed from the trenches, you get it wrong nine out of 10 times. That’s just the reality – I saw that when I was Red Tape Reduction minister, and I still see it to this day. So this one is going to be critical to have more local economies, local decision making about how things will work. What works in Calgary may not work in Taber, or what works in Taber may not work in Calgary or Edmonton. So we have to have that ability to really make it work for specific areas, and I think this is going to be able to do that.”
Critics of the reorganization, including the opposition NDP, argue the changes are a prelude to privatization of health care delivery services in Alberta. Hunter, on the other hand, says there is no evidence to support such baseless claims.
“Tell me where? Show me where we are doing that? I mean, in our plan as we presented it to Albertans, where is that? If they could show me something, then let’s have a debate about it. But I just don’t throw out some slander without backing it up. Unfortunately, the NDP are far too often willing to do that. And we’ve caught them many times with just making something up and we’ll say, ‘Okay, well, just show us where we’re doing that’. The reality is that we’re going to have primary care, we’re going to have acute care, we’re going to have continuing care, we’re going to have mental health and addictions. If they can show me where in that formula that we are privatizing it; but again, they say the same thing in Question Period, and they throw these things, these terms out that scare people, and I think it’s really sad that they would do that, especially to seniors who really require us to have a very effective and public health care system.”