Few fireworks in leadership debate

Alberta’s Tory leadership candidates agreed Thursday that the ailing public-health system can be cured from within, but candidate Alison Redford couldn’t resist taking a scalpel to the privatization musings of Gary Mar.

MEDICINE HAT — Alberta’s Tory leadership candidates agreed Thursday that the ailing public-health system can be cured from within, but candidate Alison Redford couldn’t resist taking a scalpel to the privatization musings of Gary Mar.

“When you decide not to fix the health-care system and instead commercialize health care, you begin to dismantle public health care for Albertans,” Redford said to applause in the debate at the Medicine Hat Lodge.

Mar made headlines earlier this week when he suggested that Albertans need to at least explore expanding the use of private-care clinics to take care of routine procedures.

The work would still be carried out and paid for under the public care umbrella.

Mar, a health minister under former premier Ralph Klein, said there should at least be a discussion, given that some Alberta patients are now having to pay heavily out of pocket to go to other jurisdictions to get critical care they either can’t get, or can’t get fast enough, at home.

Mar didn’t respond directly to Redford’s criticism, but told the audience he’s open to all options.

“I’m prepared to have an open and frank discussion about the future of health care, and to listen carefully,” he said.

It was a brief sizzle of fireworks in an otherwise tame debate among the six candidates vying to replace Ed Stelmach as party leader and premier.

The candidates — which also include Doug Horner, Ted Morton, Rick Orman and Doug Griffiths — agreed with one another for the most part on topics ranging from fiscal responsibility to more money for education.

On health care, Horner, Orman, Griffiths, and Redford said they need to change the whites-of-the-eyes rule that mandates doctors see patients personally, even for routine matters like prescription refills.

“We have to find a triage experience for the patient where they can get dealt with in the doctor’s office without having to see that doctor,” said Orman.

He said more responsibilities need to given to nurses and to immigrant doctors that have passed their exams but are waiting for residency.

“Those are two examples of people we can use in a better way and not clog up our doctors’ offices,” Orman said.

Horner agreed with the strategy, noting “a registered nurse is trained to 70 per cent of the scope of a family physician.”

He said they also need to rethink the traditional care model.

“Why not put health professionals in schools, where we need them?” Horner said.

“They can actually treat kids at source, give them counselling around nutrition, around health care, around good choices — and that will save us in the long run.”

Redford proposed a system of family-care clinics that would match primary care teams with patients and would see funding follow the patient rather than be given in lump sums to institutions.

She also talked about her nine-year-old daughter.

“If Sarah has got the flu, I need to be able to talk to a registered nurse or a nurse practitioner who can give me the information I need without me having to worry about seeing a family physician,” said Redford.

Morton said he will ensure continued funding for programs that give graduating medical students incentive to work in rural areas.

Griffiths said the government needs to solve the physician shortage at source.

“We need to train more doctors in this province instead of trying to steal them all from South Africa,” he said to applause.

None of the candidates addressed private-care options during the debate. But among the six, Griffiths is the only other candidate to say private options need to at least be explored.

In his video blog earlier this week, he said a public system that forces some patients to spend heavily to get treatment elsewhere is broken and that perhaps those who can afford to see a family physician have to pony up.

The debate was the fourth of eight public forums that will see the candidates discuss the issues in venues before the Sept. 17 vote.