OPINION | When it comes to our health care, Albertans will not be silenced

AUPE’s wildcat strike was just the latest example of ongoing unrest among front-line health-care workers in Alberta, in the midst of Jason Kenney’s assault on the province’s public health-care system, writes Thara Kumar and Kavya Anchuri.

'We must stand alongside our front-line health-care workers, and voice our support for their cause'

Support workers walked off the job at several Alberta hospitals last month, including the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary. They were ordered back to work but, according to Thara Kumar and Kavya Anchuri, the issue is far from settled. (Francois Joly/Radio-Canada)

This column is an opinion from Thara Kumar and Kavya Anchuri, board members of the non-profit advocacy group Canadian Doctors for Medicare.

The Alberta government may believe that the recent Alberta Union of Provincial Employees strike is behind them, after the province's Labour Relations Board declared the strike illegal and ordered employees back to work on Oct. 27.

But for Albertans in fear of their health-care system crumbling under UCP leadership, this issue is far from settled.  

AUPE's wildcat strike was just the latest example of ongoing unrest among front-line health-care workers in Alberta, in the midst of Premier Jason Kenney's assault on the province's public health-care system.

In his first 18 months of his leadership, Kenney's government introduced two omnibus bills that brought sweeping changes to Alberta's health-care system.

These changes include giving government the authority to unilaterally break contracts with the province's physicians, placing restrictions on front-line health workers' right to strike and to access collective bargaining, and implementing policies that open the door to increased privatization of health-care services and the development of an American-style, two-tier health-care system.  

All of this, by the way, was done after Kenney won the 2019 provincial election with a promise to "maintain or increase" public health spending and protect Alberta's existing public health infrastructure.  

Campaign promises forgotten

If preserving public health-care was in Kenney's platform, all evidence suggests that he has since changed his mind on the matter, or that he never intended to honour his campaign promises.

At the UCP annual general meeting in 2019, just months after Kenney was elected, the party voted against a motion to ensure that Alberta upholds the principles of the Canada Health Act, which is the federal legislation that enshrines the principles of medicare.  

Worse yet, at its 2020 AGM last month, the UCP passed a resolution in favour of a privately funded health-care system. Instead of dismissing this idea, Kenney said it will be taken under consideration for his next election bid. This is a colossal betrayal of the Albertans who voted this party into power.

Even before the 2020 UCP AGM vote, Kenney had begun to corporatize health-care services in Alberta by contracting out publicly delivered services to private, for-profit organizations. He has done so in long-term care, despite evidence that for-profit facilities have experienced greater mortality and morbidity — that is, more death and sickness — from the COVID-19 pandemic than not-for-profit homes.

He has also contracted out community lab services in a similar manner and is encouraging the development of private, for-profit surgical centres in the province.

UCP Leader Jason Kenney signs a 'public health guarantee' during last year's provincial election campaign. Since becoming premier, the authors say, Kenney has either changed his mind or he never intended to honour his promise. (Scott Neufeld/CBC )

So what does this mean for Albertans?  It means we have provincial leadership that has not only misled us, but is also aggressively implementing an agenda to dismantle our health-care system, rather than improve it.  

Two-tier health-care systems have long been shown to drain resources from public health care, worsen wait times in the public system, and create access to care that is based on ability to pay, rather than on need.

This was emphasized in a recent British Columbia Supreme Court decision against plaintiffs who were seeking to strike down laws that protect medicare. Specifically, the court upheld laws that prohibit doctors from billing patients or their insurance companies for access to care that is covered under the public system.

Based on the evidence and expert opinions presented in the trial, the court stated: "Permitting duplicative private health-care would only exacerbate existing health inequities."

We need evidence-based solutions

Nobody can deny that our current health-care system has gaps, and that improvements are needed to reduce wait times and increase access to care.

But rather than work with front-line workers and health policy experts to find evidence-based solutions that will improve care for all Albertans, Kenney and his team would rather implement poorly vetted policies that have already failed in other provinces.

These are policies that will only benefit those who can pay, while restricting access to care for the rest of us. These are policies that will put more money into the pockets of his corporate friends, rather than into the health of Albertans.

Is this what Albertans voted for? Not a chance.

Misled voters must send the message loud and clear at our next provincial election: We will not be duped out of equitable access to health care.

Until then, we must stand alongside our front-line health-care workers and voice our support for their cause. Premier Kenney, Albertans will not be silenced on the matter of our own health.

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Thara Kumar is an emergency room physician based in Red Deer. Kavya Anchuri is a medical student at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. They are both board members of the non-profit advocacy group Canadian Doctors for Medicare.