Alberta picks panel to fix health rules; critics say more privatization on way

Alberta is taking the first step to overhaul its health laws — including redefining public care — but Health Minister Ron Liepert stresses the move is not a stalking horse to introduce more privatization.

EDMONTON — Alberta is taking the first step to overhaul its health laws — including redefining public care — but Health Minister Ron Liepert stresses the move is not a stalking horse to introduce more privatization.

“Some of our provincial legislation that guides our health-care system is around 100 years old, much of it designed around the system and not the patient,” Liepert said Tuesday.

“We need a system in place that moves the patient from the bottom of an organizational chart to the top.”

Liepert announced a 16-member panel of politicians, advocates, academics and health leaders that has three months to review how the province delivers medical care. The public will have its say through an interactive website.

He said he’ll make the findings public when he receives them in November.

The committee is tasked with finding a new way to define publicly funded health services under the terms of the Canada Health Act. It must also look for ways to make public services more accountable.

Liepert said it’s not intended as a back-door way to increase private delivery of services under a public health umbrella — long a hot-button issue in Alberta.

“This exercise is not about delisting services or privatizing our publicly funded health-care system,” he said.

“We are guided by the Canada Health Act, (but) I wish the federal government would start to take a look at it and say, ’How relevant is it in its current form and does it need updating?”’

He said it is another attempt by the province to look at what public health services are available and whether improvements can be made.

The review comes as Alberta wriggles in the vise-grip of a growing population and a $7-billion budget deficit.

Alberta Health Services, the provincewide board that delivers care, announced last week it is looking at voluntary retirements and further cost cuts to reduce a $1-billion deficit.

The committee will not address those problems, said Liepert.

“This isn’t a money-saving exercise.”

People who come up to him on the street are generally happy with health care, but unhappy with barriers to getting it, he added.

“In many cases it’s little stuff. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, ’Can you please tell me why we have to go back to the doctor to get our prescription renewed?”’

He bristled when asked by reporters if the committee will explore delisting public services.

“You folks love that word. Let’s start talking about A-listing,” he said.

Liepert noted there’s now more money for home care and the province has begun paying for midwifery services.

Fred Horne, an Edmonton Tory legislature member who will co-chair the committee, said members will focus on Alberta’s system, but draw on best practices from other countries.

Hugh MacDonald, health critic for the Opposition Liberals, dismissed the committee as a cynical public relations exercise.

He suggested it will allow the governing Tories to deflect criticism in the short term, and give them reasons to bring in more private-service delivery in the future.

“I think this government sees the Canada Health Act as a hindrance to what they would like to do with the health-care system — and that’s to increase the role of private clinics and to delist services,” he said.

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