Health strategy unveiled, designed to cut wait times

EDMONTON — Alberta’s health minister denied Tuesday he strong-armed an arms-length board to get rid of the province’s top health bureaucrat, and says it’s time to move from the turmoil that has rocked his department.

EDMONTON — Alberta’s health minister denied Tuesday he strong-armed an arms-length board to get rid of the province’s top health bureaucrat, and says it’s time to move from the turmoil that has rocked his department.

“It’s time for more action,” Gene Zwozdesky told reporters after unveiling a new five-year plan to reduce surgical waiting times and improve patient care.

“And this plan is the most aggressive and the most ambitious plan of any province with respect to health-care improvements in Canada,” he said.

“We’ve got to get past some of where we’ve been for the past number of weeks and show people what we’re doing to address the many issues they’ve asked us to address.”

The new plan sets specific benchmarks for service, increases beds and improves service.

Wait times for procedures like hip surgery and cancer treatment will be slashed drastically. Emergency room wait times will improve so that 90 per cent of those who come for minor problems are in and out within four hours.

Health supervisors will get more direction on how much latitude they have to solve site-specific problems.

Bureaucrats will be ordered to document their progress on meeting the new targets four times a year, and that information will be shared with the public.

The plan has been in the works for half a year. But opposition NDP Leader Brian Mason says it was released Tuesday ahead of schedule to deflect attention from the confusion and condemnation that has befallen Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government over health care.

“If people really want action, they’re going to have to elect a new government,” Mason told the legislature during a raucous question period, where most of the questions were directed at Zwozdesky.

“This minister announces, and reannounces, and reannounces money, commitments to hire people, all kinds of targets that are supposed to be met and nobody frankly believes it anymore.”

It has been a tumultuous fall session for Zwozdesky, problems that boiled over last week as the government put pressure on its health delivery arm, Alberta Health Services, to improve wait times in overcrowded emergency wards.

The pressure seemed to get the best of Stephen Duckett, the CEO of Alberta Health Services. Over a week ago, he had an angry encounter with reporters following a meeting. As TV crews followed him up a street, he refused to answer questions, saying he was busy eating a cookie. At one point he gestured as if to jam the cookie in a reporter’s mouth.

The news footage went viral. There were cheeky YouTube remixes, one splicing in images of the Cookie Monster of TV’s “Sesame Street.”

Stelmach called the cookie comments “offensive” and Zwozdesky said Tuesday he talked to the AHS board days later to find out if the comments put Duckett in an untenable situation.

Zwozdesky said he didn’t push the board on what decision to make, but said he balked when told by the board it wanted to think things over for a couple of weeks.

“I simply asked the board to make a decision,” said Zwozdesky. “Those (were) the clear directions: I want a decision now.”

A day later Duckett and the board agreed to part ways.

Four of the four 14 board members have since quit, and one, Dr. Andreas Laupacis, said publicly it was because Zwozdesky’s violated the board’s independence on the Duckett matter.

“That’s his opinion,” said Zwozdesky when asked about it by reporters.

“I don’t challenge his opinion. I’m telling you the truth of what happened.”

The health problems have dwarfed all other issues in the fall sitting of the legislature. It began over a month ago, when the head of emergency room care for the Alberta Medical Association said in a letter leaked to the media that overcrowded emergency rooms were at a crisis stage.

Since then, others have come forward with stories of people suffering or even dying while awaiting care. Earlier this month, Zwozdesky’s parliamentary assistant, Raj Sherman, broke ranks and put the blame for the problems on Stelmach, health administrators and former health minister Ron Liepert.

Sherman, who is also an emergency room doctor, was kicked out of caucus and now sits as an Independent, firing broadsides at the government with the authority of a man who works in the hospital system and as a politician who recently sat in on the highest levels of health policy development.

Problems escalated yet again on Monday, when leaked documents from a departmental strategy session showed the government plans to introduce reforms to broaden the scope of private health delivery under the public health care umbrella.

Those reforms include potentially delisting services, allowing private health insurance, and letting doctors work simultaneously in the private and public systems.

Sherman has said the changes were slated to be brought in under new regulations in a revised Alberta Health Act, which is expected to pass in the current sitting.

Opponents say the document proves the government is lying to Albertans, promising public care on one hand while plotting a two-tier, privatized system on the other.

Zwozdesky, however, told the legislature the document merely reflects public discussion.

“We’ve made it very clear — and the premier has made it very clear — we are not looking at anything to do with a two-tiered system,” he said.