Health care levies may not lead to a better system

Albertans will soon be asked to “contribute more directly” to their health care, Premier Jim Prentice told the province earlier this week.

Problem of access to health care still a problem, health policy expert says

Health policy expert John Church says Albertans will likely demand more from the health system if they are expected to pay more into it. (CBC)

Albertans will soon be asked to “contribute more directly” to their health care, Premier Jim Prentice told the province earlier this week.

The province has said it will add health-care levies — stopping short of calling them premiums — into today’s budget. No details about how the levies would work or how much they would end up costing individuals have been released yet.

But many Albertans ​— like Ray Marsh — don’t think the added cost will translate into a better health-care system.

Marsh been waiting to see a specialist in Edmonton for the past six months. He doesn’t think the new levies will lead to any improvement.

“We've got wait times for surgeries and things like that — I don't see it making a big difference,” Marsh said.

“They take something away, but then the give it back to you. I just can’t see the logic in it.”

He does worry, however, what the added cost will mean to those who are on a fixed income.

“I'm a senior, so I'm concerned how its going to affect me.”

John Church, a University of Alberta associate professor who focuses on health policy, said that health-care levies just change where the money is coming from, but isn’t really improving health care.

“It’s not going to solve the problems in health care and it’s not going to solve the overall revenue issue in the province, now or in the future,” he said.

Seven years ago, former-premier Ed Stelmach got rid of health-care premiums, a promise that made up a major part of his election campaign. Church estimates when premiums did exist, they only paid for about 15 per cent of the province’s health care spending — just about enough to cover the salaries of physicians.

But the issues with Alberta’s health-care system run much deeper, he said.

“There are access issues across the system that the government just hasn’t been able to resolve.”   

Church said the province may have introduced the health-care levy because they thought it would be more palatable to voters than a provincial sales tax, a measure that Prentice has said he is against.

He warned that Albertans may be less tolerant of wait times and crowded ER rooms if they’ve been asked to pony up more money.

“People may feel that if they have to start paying directly, they're going to want to see the system work much better than it has been,” he said.

Petition demands levies be scrapped

Public health-care advocates have come out against the levies. Friends of Medicare has begun circulating a petition online, demanding the Tories abandon the idea.

Sandra Azocar, the group’s executive director, argued that no matter what the government calls the fees, they are effectively a tax.

“Whatever name they choose to give, it’s exactly that a form of regressive tax being imposed on Albertans who already pay for our health-care services through the taxes we pay now,” she said.

While the province has promised that the levy will be a progressive one, Azocar said the idea flies in the face of how Albertans want health care funded.