Braid: Don’t trust campaigning UCP candidates with health care future

When politicians start faulting AHS, remember that they’re really talking about themselves

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Some UCP leadership candidates, knowing the government is in trouble over health care, are falling back on a handy old scapegoat.

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Blame Alberta Health Services. Fault the very organization the government controls and funds — the one whose CEO, if she offends the government, will be terminated (yes, that’s Verna Yiu).

The appointed governing board of AHS, apparently arms-length from politics, used to imagine it had some independence.

In 2013 the governors argued with the PC government over executive bonuses. The entire group was promptly fired by the health minister, Fred Horne.

When politicians start faulting AHS, remember that they’re really talking about themselves. The health minister, the premiere and the cabinet are the unchallenged rulers of health care. Any AHS failings go right back to them.

Health care has been plagued by obsessive government tinkering since the 1990s. Decision-making has gone from 17 regional health authorities, to nine, and then to the single superboard.

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Ron Liepert, health minister in 2008, convinced then-premier Ed Stelmach that one provincial authority was a great idea.

At the start of COVID-19 in 2020, UCP politicians said this unitary structure would help in the provincewide fight against the disease.

They were at least partly right, in the sense that AHS could marshal supplies and co-ordinate responses provincewide.

But now that health care is in crisis, and half of rural Alberta is still in a fury over masking and isolation orders, some candidates suddenly want to go back to regional control.

During Wednesday’s leadership debate, former finance minister Travis Toews said: “Health care is failing in rural Alberta, full stop. That’s my experience in the northwest and that’s what I hear from Albertans right across the province.

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“AHS needs complete restructuring, and we have to decentralize their decision-making structure. The structure right now is not only failing Albertans. It’s failing our front-line health care professionals, and that’s tragic.”

Former Transportation Minister Rajan Sawhney argued that “AHS is an inverted triangle. It needs to be flipped. It’s too top heavy.

“Maybe we need to move back to regional boards. There are many aspects of AHS that need to be dismantled.”

Rebecca Schulz, formerly children’s services minister, said, “I don’t believe going back to regional boards is inevitably the answer, but what is the answer is going back to local decision making . . . Go back to listening to the front lines.”

Brian Jean, former Wildrose leader and now a UCP MLA, says he’s amused “when people from Calgary and Edmonton tell us how health care is going. I’m from Fort McMurray and I tell you we haven’t had a health system there for years and years and years.”

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Jean doesn’t think it’s necessary to “blow up AHS,” but says the money should follow the patients and the government needs to work with the doctors and nurses.

Centralized command out of Edmonton can be sclerotic. Some in the system still pine for the days when each hospital had its own governing board that could approve quick solutions to in-house needs and problems.

A study ordered in 2015 by Jim Prentice, the late PC premiere, showed that in some rural hospitals, nurses were paying with their own money to buy items like bandages, light bulbs and screws.

AHS was taking up to six months to approve purchases of supplies. One local provider needed six separate approvals to buy anything.

Such problems would seem minor now, as basic services shut down randomly all over the province, ambulances line up at hospital doors and surgeries are cancelled.

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The last people to be trusted with fixing this mess is another cluster of politicians hoping to be premier. But a couple of them — notably Sawhney and Danielle Smith — do have a good idea.

They call for a public inquiry. I agree.

Alberta needs a full-scale, independent and open investigation of provincial health care under the Public Inquiries Act, headed by a commissioner with the ability to compel testimony under oath.

This inquiry should examine every corner of health care performance and governance to determine how it all began to fall apart, who is responsible, and what must be done to create a viable system over the long term.

The UCP’s public inquiry into foreign funding of anti-oil campaigns gave this powerful tool a bad name with many Albertans.

But health care is a truly worthy issue — a crisis that begs for serious, non-partisan investigation. It can’t be left to the government or leadership campaigners.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

Twitter: @DonBraid

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