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Alberta Premier Ralph Klein says the time has come to 'move from ideas to action' to change the health-care system.

Albertans who are willing to pay will be able to get upgraded hospital rooms and surgeries such as hip replacements under the province's long-awaited "third way" health-care strategy.

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein and provincial Health Minister Iris Evans on Tuesday unveiled the direction the province would like to take health care, including a mix of private and public options.

Klein first proposed his "third way" health-care system in January, but was vague on details at the time.

The "Getting on with better health care" discussion paper released Tuesday lists 12 main areas for changes that include:

  • Allowing patients to pay extra to upgrade their hospital rooms or surgical procedures – for example, by paying extra to get a better hip replacement than is medically necessary.
  • Possibly tying how much a person pays for medications to how much money they earn.
  • Allowing the use of secondary insurance to cover treatments from podiatrists and chiropractors.

"We need change in the system," Klein said.

'The things that are medically necessary will be provided'

While the paper lists changes meant to speed up "access" to some medical procedures, both Klein and Evans refused to directly say whether people would be able to pay to get faster hip or knee replacements, heart surgery or cancer treatments.

"It's not intended to fast-track the system," Evans said of allowing people to pay to get access to surgeries. "It's intended to provide people the choice."

Evans stressed that the public system will still pay for basic services, but the ideas under discussion will allow patients more options in the care they receive.

"The things that are medically necessary will be provided."

'Nothing has been cast in stone'

The two politicians stressed that the discussion paper was only a starting point meant to encourage industry and public feedback.

"Nothing is cast in stone," Evans said. "We put the paper out to be consultative with Albertans."

At several points during the news conference, Klein reacted angrily to questions from reporters as they pressed for details.

When asked why the provincial system had to be changed at all, he snapped: "Do you think that $9.1 billion is peanuts? Nine point one billion dollars – that's what we're spending on health care in this province."

Klein first proposed his "third way" in January, saying incorporating both public and private models was the best way to deliver care, while staying within the Canada Health Act.

He did say then that he would give the province's nine regional health authorities latitude to deal with problems such as long waiting lists. But he maintained that he would not pave the way for a U.S.-style system.

"It's not going to happen," he said then, describing the U.S. private system as expensive and non-inclusive.

Klein has moved away from trying to transform the Canada Health Act, but he said he would take any disagreements about the proposals to a federal-provincial dispute panel. The province already pays for private centres such as the Grace Clinic in Calgary, which performs orthopedic surgeries.

Klein's "unshackling" of health authorities isn't a radical departure, according to Jack Davis, CEO of the Calgary Health Region. He said his authority already contracts out a number of jobs, including long-term care, home care and diagnostics.

The premier created a stir in last year's federal election when he announced that after the vote he would declare radical changes to the health-care system. Prime Minister Paul Martin used the claim as ammunition against federal Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.