Alberta health-care premiums not a done deal, says Premier Jim Prentice

Premier Jim Prentice says no final decision has been made on whether to bring back health-care premiums in Alberta.

Finance Minister Robin Campbell told reporters he was 'keen' on the idea

(Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Premier Jim Prentice says no final decision has been made on whether to bring back health-care premiums in Alberta.

"The minister talked about this as a concept yesterday," Prentice told The Canadian Press Thursday. "There's been no decision made about how a health-care premium would or would not be devised and executed."

Finance Minister Robin Campbell broached the issue with reporters by saying he was "keen" on the idea.

Campbell said the premiums could be paid by individuals, not by their employers — as was often the case before they were abolished seven years ago by then-premier Ed Stelmach.

Prentice didn't rule out bringing them back, saying it's part of a wider discussion on the reform of Alberta's public finances as the province goes through yet another cycle of government cutbacks driven by collapsing oil prices.

"The minister of finance and I are talking about a process that defines a fiscal framework for Alberta for the next 10 years," Prentice said. "This is not about a single budget, it's about Alberta's overall public finances and the structural changes that need to be made.

"His comments need to be taken in that context. There have been no final decisions made."

Critics were quick to react after Campbell's remarks.

"Health-care premiums would certainly hit vulnerable Albertans the hardest," said New Democrat Leader Rachel Notley in a release.

Impact on low income Albertans?

"Before the province even considers reintroducing them, our flat-tax system needs to be fixed. We are the only province in the country that still relies on this method that forces middle-income Albertans to shoulder a disproportionate amount of the financial burden."

Prentice said health-care premiums needn't fall heaviest on low income Albertans.

"It depends how it's developed and it doesn't need to be regressive."

Prentice said that charging health-care premiums was a popular suggestion from 25,000 people who answered an online survey about government finances.

In the past, the fee for a family had been just over $1,056 a year and just over $528 for a single person, with payment exemptions for lower-income Albertans and seniors.

The fee generated about $1 billion a year for the provincial government — about the same amount of money that critics say a one per cent increase in corporate taxes would bring in, a move Prentice has already ruled out.

Herb Emery with the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy says health-care premiums could provide stable funding and accountability at a time when health-care costs are ballooning.

"This is one way of putting back in the taxpayer and voter's mind that health care does actually have a tax price and we need to pay attention to that," he said.

Emery says when people are aware of the cost they will understand the need for restraint — something he says is sorely needed in a province that spends $18 billion a year on health care.

With files from CBC News