Wellness foundation draws support
Communities and organizations representing a million Albertans now support the development of the Wellness Foundation to focus solely on health promotion.
Last week Red Deer City Council joined the chorus calling on the province to fund the foundation to reduce the number of Albertans suffering from chronic diseases.
Les Hagen, consulting director of Wellness Alberta, said disease and injury prevention is woefully underfunded in Alberta.
“Preventable illness and injury are placing an enormous burden on our quality of life, our economy and our health care system.
‘Right now 90 per cent of illnesses and conditions that are filling our hospitals are largely preventable and yet we’re spending less than one per cent of the total health care budget on the primary prevention of these illnesses and conditions,” said Hagen who is also the executive director of Action on Smoking and Health.
Soon Alberta will be faced with a “tsunami of baby boomers” who will be hitting the health care system hard in the next 10 to 15 years unless something is done now, he said.
“In the past when we’ve made investments often they’ve been usurped by the needs of acute care. What we have to do first is actually protect (health promotion) funding from the health care system itself,” he said.
Wellness Alberta, launched earlier this year by Alberta Policy Coalition for Chronic Disease Prevention want to see the creation of a special wellness levy applied to tobacco, alcohol and sugar-sweetened beverage products sold in Alberta.
The money should not re-allocated from the existing budgets.
About $170 million, at least one per cent of Alberta’s health budget, is needed to promote wellness.
“We’ve done the polling. The vast majority of Albertans are in favour of a wellness levy on tobacco or alcohol as long as those proceeds are used for health promotion. They won’t support it if the money is squandered or just goes into general revenue.”
Hagen said last spring the Redford government announced a new levy on cellphones to help fund the 911 service which helps people get to the emergency health care they need.
Surely a levy could be created to help keep people well so they don’t need to visit the hospital.
Wellness Alberta also wants the foundation to be separate from the health department, ideally at arms-length to government with a structure similar to the Heritage Savings Trust Fund which reports directly to the legislature through an all-party committee.
“All the checks and balances the provincial government has will be applied to this foundation and it will be imperative on this foundation to demonstrate success with the available dollars.”
He said in the past government has struggled with meaningful communication strategy, for example with sexually transmitted disease.
The foundation could provide leadership on controversial issues and topics that do not have much political support but absolutely have to be addressed to reduce the burden of chronic disease.
Hagen said the foundation could do more than just education.
It could help promote an overall culture of wellness to build public support for policy measures which has been done before with respect to smoking bylaws.
“What used to be very much a culture of tobacco use is now very much a culture of non-smoking. We can do the same with wellness.”
A diverse number of issues could be reach the spotlight, he said.
“We could improve the physical environment. I know you have struggled in Red Deer with bike lanes.
“Lots of communities have. Funding could be used to advance the promotion of effective bike lanes and safe cycling, or make communities more walkable.”
Canadian Cancer Society’s Alberta/Northwest Territories Division is one of the health care organizations to endorse the foundation.
“In wellness in general, one of the things we’re looking at is stability in funding, longer-term projects, the ability to really effectively evaluate and continue to implement best practices,” said Sarah Hawkins, public policy analyst for the cancer society who approached Red Deer City Council for its support on behalf of Wellness Alberta.
Hagen said the foundation wants to support health professionals who are already working to promote health. It’s all about maximizing programs to their full potential.
Red Deer Primary Care Network has been working to promote healthy living on many fronts like running a free bike corral at Saturday’s Public Market to boost interest in cycling, making exercise accessible with free outdoor gyms, and encouraging walking via virtual treks.
Group classes help promote weight loss, reduce anxiety, and help seniors exercise to be steadier on their feet. One-on-one programs assist people trying to quit smoking, control blood pressure and diabetes, and more.
“I think education and prevention are very important and I’ll always stand behind that,” said Dr. Peter Bouch, chairman of Red Deer Primary Care Network.
“I just think any of these committees or any of these foundations need to go and see what’s already in communities. What works in Red Deer might not work in other areas.”
Putting dollars into prevention is forward thinking instead of the typical band-aid solution used in health care. But collaborating with organizations already working with the public is key, he said.