Health minister wants more local input

Alberta will move to restore more local input into health care now that the province’s top health bureaucrat is gone.

EDMONTON — Alberta will move to restore more local input into health care now that the province’s top health bureaucrat is gone.

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky says the departure of Stephen Duckett as CEO of Alberta Health Services is a good chance to restructure the system to create a stronger role for regional health councils.

“There’s an appetite for more local input and I’ve asked Alberta Health Services to take a look at how they can strengthen them,” Zwozdesky said Thursday.

Duckett and the Alberta government parted company Wednesday. That came two days after a Conservative member of the legislature was suspended from caucus for voicing concerns over the government’s performance on health care.

Zwozdesky said Duckett no longer had the credibility to lead Alberta Health Services, an arm’s-length body responsible for the day-to-day operation of health care. He also brushed past reporters last Friday with a comment that he was too busy eating a cookie to answer questions after a meeting on emergency wait times.

But opposition parties were united in saying Duckett wasn’t the problem. They argued that merging nine regional health boards into the centralized Alberta Health Services board was too unwieldy and didn’t allow enough flexibility for local concerns.

Maybe more local input is needed, said Zwozdesky.

“What you will see is an enhancement of the responsibilities that the local health advisory councils already have,” he said.

“You’ll see an expansion perhaps of what their roles and responsibilities will be.”

“It was never the intention with the amalgamation of nine boards down to one to somehow not pay attention to what’s going on at the local level.”

Zwozdesky said he will also revive separate advisory boards for cancer care, mental health and addictions — bodies that were also folded into Alberta Health Services when it was created.

“The Alberta Health Services board is looking at putting in place some specific advisory councils or secretariats to do with cancer care, to do with mental health and to do with addictions.”

Liberal Opposition Leader David Swann applauded Zwozdesky’s intentions.

“I have to give him some credit for listening,” Swann said.

Patrick White, president of the Alberta Medical Association, agreed that more grassroots input into health care is needed.

“With the size of Alberta Health Services, the local focus has been lost, there’s no doubt about that,” White said. “You need to have a very strong local input within each region.”

White added that he hopes Zwozdesky’s interest in communication extends to doctors as well.

A recent medical association survey of its members found that only 20 per cent of doctors felt they were part of health-care planning.

“We felt we have not been included in part of the process,” White said.

“We need to put events behind us and start working toward a future, where we can develop a new relationship with Alberta Health Services, where we have a culture change which would be one of inclusion and engagement.”

Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith pointed out that her party, along with the Liberals and New Democrats, has long advocated more local control over health care.

“This is a step in the right direction,” she said. “You need empowered administrators in every hospital so they can make local decisions.”

Smith said her party will be watching how new roles for local councils are implemented to ensure they aren’t just a “smokescreen.”

The head of the union that represents 21,000 health-care professionals in the province said the fact that the government is considering a return to more zone leadership is just evidence that the Tories have “no clue on how to run health care.”

“Premier Stelmach continues to state that he’s doing what Albertans want,” said Elisabeth Ballermann of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta. “The only thing Albertans have asked from this provincial government — year in, year out — is to enhance the funding and staffing of a strong public health-care system.

“Undeniably, they have failed miserably in this respect.”

Turmoil in Alberta’s health-care system continued to dominate the legislature.

Opposition parties mounted a filibuster late Wednesday in support of an amendment to legislation that would set out acceptable wait times for emergency room patients.

Debate on the proposed amendment lasted all night and, with a short pause to deal with other legislation, resumed again on Thursday.

A filibuster is a procedural tactic that allows opposition members to prolong debate. It can be ended when the government passes a motion of closure.