Beware backdoor privatization

The most glaring aspect about the swirl of numbers and rumours around the future of seniors health care in Alberta is the absence of a stated plan.

The most glaring aspect about the swirl of numbers and rumours around the future of seniors health care in Alberta is the absence of a stated plan.

Because neither Alberta Health Services nor the health minister will state clearly the medium and long-term plan for this, we are left open to speculation, conspiracies and fear-mongering.

That could well be part of a plan. Let the doomsayers have their say and when outcomes are only half as bad as predicted, we will all bless the government for saving us.

But pieces of information are coming to light that suggest a plan for radical changes to health delivery for everyone, not just seniors. Viewed as a group, they suggest Albertans will receive less from the public system in the future, and pay more out of pocket for private services.

Something to keep in mind amidst the swirl: Although Albertans do pay more taxes for health care than any other sector of our provincial budget, we still pay less for health care as a portion of GDP than any other province. And, we carry the lowest provincial/municipal tax levels overall of all Canadians.

On Tuesday, the Alberta NDP made public a leaked document that suggests the government is quietly reducing long-term care for seniors, even though the wait lists for long-term care beds have tripled.

NDP Leader Brian Mason said at a press conference in Edmonton that the government is planning to increase fees for assisted living to make it more attractive for developers, but more costly for seniors. That, he says, will drive seniors into hospital emergency rooms, because they can’t afford the cost of the reduced levels of care the government is planning for them and just get sick enough to crowd into what’s left of our hospitals.

The Insight Into Government newsletter reported last week that the managers of continuing care facilities had asked the government to approve a hike of 25 per cent in the fees they charge residents. The article mentioned this as part of a larger look at government secrecy in budget planning for all departments, not just health. No approval was given, according to Insight.

But we do know the government is in negotiations with private developers to add 800 continuing care beds in the Calgary region alone. This will more than offset the closures of hospital beds for seniors who have no nursing home beds available to them — if the care is adequate for their needs.

It costs about $57,000 a year for a nursing home bed. An assisted living space costs about $32,000, with the individual covering costs above what “assisted living” will be defined to be. Hospital beds cost considerably more than both.

Both the health minister and the head of Alberta Health Services maintain that adding assisted living spaces gives people choices. But those choices ought to be governed by ability to live independently, not by ability to pay.

In Red Deer, we are building a major long-term care centre on the Michener grounds. When it is finished, it will add no increased care capacity at all to our region, because two other aging nursing homes with the same total capacity will be closed.

What will happen to those buildings, deemed too old to renovate for long-term care? Will they be sold to private concerns and marketed as assisted living spaces, with an enhanced user-pay schedule?

That certainly looks like the plan.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.

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