Health reform to top agenda in fall session

Alberta’s opposition politicians say it’s time to give up on Premier Ed Stelmach’s government ever solving health-care problems, adding they plan to use the fall legislature session to put forward solutions of their own. “It’s clearly a government that’s out of ideas, that’s tired, and doesn’t connect very well with the public,” said NDP Leader Brian Mason

EDMONTON — Alberta’s opposition politicians say it’s time to give up on Premier Ed Stelmach’s government ever solving health-care problems, adding they plan to use the fall legislature session to put forward solutions of their own.

“It’s clearly a government that’s out of ideas, that’s tired, and doesn’t connect very well with the public,” said NDP Leader Brian Mason.

“We’re going to be bringing forward some specific proposals with respect to where the province ought to go with health care.”

A sweeping government revision of the Alberta Health Act is expected to be the centrepiece legislation when politicians return Monday for the five-week fall sitting.

The bill, to be introduced by Conservative Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, will enshrine in legislation a set of governing principles and grievance procedures, but won’t address specific front-line concerns.

Albertans are dealing with staff shortages, long wait times for surgery and overcrowded emergency wards, a problem highlighted last week by the release of a letter by Dr. Paul Parks, the president of emergency medicine for the Alberta Medical Association.

In the letter, Parks said severe overcrowding in emergency wards was threatening to cause the system to collapse.

Parks said a shortage of long-term care beds was causing the system to back up, with patients who should be in long-term care beds jamming up the acute-care beds, leading in turn to overcrowding in the emergency wards.

Mason said his party, in a report based on their own cross-province public hearings, has previously cited alleviating the long-term bed shortage as the key to reversing the disastrous domino effect.

Zwozdesky said last week the government is taking action. He announced it will add another 200 beds to the system and roll out a new strategy to solve emergency wait times.

The minister said at the time he had personally toured many emergency rooms and found the wait times “simply unacceptable.”

But Rob Anderson, house leader for the opposition Wildrose Alliance, said if the concern is front-line care, why is the province focusing on big-picture definitions and guidelines in its revised Health Act?

“We have a broken system right now,” said Anderson. “People are waiting not just for months, sometimes for years, for hip and knee replacements and other surgeries. We’re just pouring money into a black hole. We need to look at the actual system itself and fix what is not working.”

Anderson said his party will roll out during the session their ideas to fix the system, suggesting they won’t be shy about pursuing privatized medicine as long as it remains under the umbrella of public funding.

“The average Albertan doesn’t care one bit if something is privately delivered, publicly delivered or delivered by a non-profit,” said Anderson.

“All they care about is it’s publicly funded and everyone gets access regardless of ability to pay.”

Government House Leader Dave Hancock said the new Health Act is essential because everyone needs to be on the same road map if they are to successfully implement lasting changes.

“That’s really the critical piece of legislation,” said Hancock, noting the changes follow a year of province-wide deliberations with citizens and health specialists.

“Health is something that is very close to people. They want to know we’re following through on what we said we would do.”

But Alberta Liberal house leader Laurie Blakeman worries the act will be a Trojan Horse for the Tories to pursue a secretive health-care agenda.

“It’s a shell bill, and that means everything that’s important is in the regulations,” she said.

“If this is the future of health care in Alberta, we’re in trouble. This is nothing. It’s air. It’s smoke.”

During the session the government also expects to pass a bill that will impose fines on drivers if they’re caught reading, texting, using electronic devices and not paying attention behind the wheel.

There will be a bill to establish the framework for the province’s carbon capture and storage projects.

Legislature members are also expected to sign off on the changes to the electoral boundaries recommended this summer by a committee.

The changes will add four seats to the 83 already in the legislature. Calgary will get two more seats, Edmonton will get one and there will be another one for the oilsands-boom area of Fort McMurray.

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