Alberta to expand use of private health-care facilities, weeks after announcing public sector cuts are coming
Province will be first to meet wait-time benchmarks, health minister vows
The Alberta government announced Tuesday a new plan to reduce surgical wait times by funding an additional 80,000 surgeries over the next four years as it expands agreements with private facilities — a move critics called a step toward "American-style health care."
"We promised we would reduce surgical wait times, and we're delivering on that promise," said Health Minister Tyler Shandro as he announced the plan at the Southern Alberta Eye Center in Calgary.
"This ambitious plan will mean Alberta will have the best wait-time performance in Canada. Our plan puts the needs of patients before ideology, relying on private and public partners to achieve fundamental system improvements."
Shandro noted that expanding the use of private facilities was suggested in the MacKinnon Report, the recommendations of the blue-ribbon panel headed by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon for fixing Alberta's fiscal problems.
Opposition leader Rachel Notley accused the government of underfunding medical services to justify what she called "American-style health care."
"So they announce that they want to have private delivery of surgery services. We've seen in other jurisdictions that it does not work, that the wait times are just as high if not higher.
Albertans … don't need to be continuously relitigating the value of public health care.- Opposition Leader Rachel Notley
"At the same time, we saw the premiers meet last week in Ottawa and they all agreed that that the price of health care goes up between four and five per cent every year. Yet [Premier] Jason Kenney has only increased funding in Alberta by less than one per cent this year and flatlined it for the next three years after that," she said.
"Albertans need their health-care system to be there for them when they need it. They don't need to be continuously relitigating the value of public health care."
The province has warned unions that thousands of health-care positions could be eliminated over the next three years, including hundreds of front-line nursing jobs.
The lobby group Friends of Medicare criticized Shandro's plan as a thinly masked privatization initiative.
"We don't need private solutions to public problems like wait times," said executive director Sandra Azocar in a release.
"Just as we've seen with previous conservative governments, the minister is once again asking Albertans to accept major changes to their health-care system on faith alone, without revealing any of the details as to how this will affect costs or the quality of care to patients."
The province already has deals with 42 non-hospital facilities, mostly in Calgary and Edmonton, to provide day surgeries under contract with Alberta Health Services.
These facilities currently perform about 15 per cent of surgeries in Alberta, Shandro said.
"Our surgical centre can help the many others needing eye surgery but who are otherwise healthy and don't require admission to hospital. We're pleased to be part of the solution," said Dr. Geoff Williams, a surgeon and co-founder of the Southern Alberta Eye Center.
All medically necessary surgeries, no matter where they are offered, will be covered and fully paid for under Alberta's public health-care system.
Shandro said the province is committed to becoming the first province to meet the national benchmark of surgical wait times for knee and hip replacements and for cataract surgeries.
"We're going to have the best access to scheduled surgeries in Canada," he said.
The benchmarks are six months for hip and knee surgeries and four months for cataracts.
"This is an ambitious plan that's going to take a lot of work, because the reality is we're very far behind," he said, noting that wait times have worsened over the past four years.
For knee replacements, it went from 81 per cent of cases meeting the target to 66 per cent, he said.
The wait-times initiative includes expanded telephone and electronic advice programs for primary care providers to receive more timely advice from medical and surgical specialists. It also features a centralized electronic referral system to triage patients waiting for surgery so that they see the right specialist in the shortest time.
More details about the plan will be released in the spring budget.