EDMONTON — Once Canada’s economic engine, Alberta is now signalling that the province may be forced to hike taxes and make painful cuts unless Ottawa agrees to help with more cash for health care.
Alberta “can’t carry the country” during this recession, Premier Ed Stelmach said Thursday as he demanded a larger slice of federal health transfers from Ottawa.
“All we’re asking for is respect,” said the premier, complaining Alberta is being shortchanged by more than $700 million in health transfers compared to other provinces.
“To me, an Albertan that requires health services, that is sick or suffers from whatever disease, is just as sick as they are in Quebec or Ontario,” said Stelmach.
Currently, Alberta gets $542 per capita in health transfers, while every other province gets at least $745 per person, according to Alberta finance ministry figures.
“We’re getting screwed out of more than $200 per person, which adds up to $733 million,” said a ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Messages left at federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s office were not returned Thursday.
In its provincial budget released earlier this month, Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government stated its intention to chop $2 billion from a record $4.7 billion deficit by next year.
The government is already laying the groundwork for some pretty painful measures if it doesn’t get more federal money.
“I will not rule out tax increases,” Health Minister Ron Liepert told The Canadian Press in an interview this week. “I don’t think you can.”
“As an example, if we were to implement a five-cent gas tax, that’s $400 million,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that’s what we’re doing.
“We are not ruling out anything, other than the premier has said there will be no provincial sales tax.”
Liepert generated outcry recently by dropping chiropractic services and sex-change operations from Alberta’s medicare coverage.
Several other medical services will be dropped from coverage, Liepert said, but he won’t provide specific details.
Alberta has been warned in the past by the federal government to not violate the Canada Health Act by de-listing treatments that would be considered “medically necessary.”
But Liepert said he doesn’t think Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is likely to challenge Alberta’s cost-cutting measures.
“I think they’re going to let us run it, as they should, because it’s our jurisdiction,” he said.
The premier insists Alberta won’t violate the Canada Health Act. But Liepert’s comments drew an immediate response from Ottawa.
“Our Conservative government remains committed to the principles of the Canada Health Act,” said Josee Bellemare, press secretary to federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
Liepert, who is known for his blunt talk, conceded that a public backlash over any significant changes to the health-care system is inevitable.
“Is it going to be easy? Absolutely not,” he said. “But I do believe that there’s a recognition by a majority of Albertans that health care can’t cover everything all the time.”
Alberta’s opposition parties and a medicare lobby group were quick to pounce on the musings about trimming medicare coverage.
Friends of Medicare spokesman David Eggen said Albertans will be very upset if the Stelmach government uses a narrow interpretation of the Canada Health Act to cut medical services.
“They’re going against what Albertans expect and want from their public health-care system,” said Eggen.
Liberal Opposition Leader David Swann is calling for a wide-ranging public debate on what medical treatments Canadians can expect to be protected under the 25-year-old Canada Health Act.
“It’s high time that the public had an opportunity to say what they want for their health system and their tax dollars,” said Swann.
“Let’s let the debate begin.”