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Bill to protect public health care on NDP agenda for new legislature session

Anchored by a bill to protect public health care, CBC News has learned the NDP government intends to introduce several pieces of legislation when the new session of the Alberta legislature begins March 18.

Legislation intended to clamp down on extra billing, 2-tiered health-care delivery

Sources tell CBC news the NDP government plans to introduce a bill to protect universal access to public health care (Shutterstock / Thanakrit Sathavo)

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman has confirmed the NDP government plans to introduce a bill designed to protect public health care when the new session of the legislature begins March 18.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Hoffman offered no details but said there are specific areas the bill will address.

"It is something that I've been grappling with for a few years, on how we could find ways to improve and strengthen the public health care system," Hoffman said. "So why not now?"

CBC news has learned the bill, which would be among several new pieces of legislation, is intended to clamp down on extra billing and two-tiered health-care delivery, such as queue-jumping for preferential access to MRIs or other diagnostic imaging.

Bill 1, the Protection of Public Health Care Act, will also seek to ban priority access to patients by stopping block billing.

That's the practice of charging membership fees to so-called concierge medical clinics that provide special services to those who pay up front.

The introduction of a bill to shore up the public health-care system comes as Premier Rachel Notley faces a challenge from the United Conservative Party leading up to the next provincial election.

Under the Alberta fixed election date law, the next provincial election must be held before May 31. Notley has said she intends to honour the law by holding an election this spring.

Hoffman refused to say if the new health-care bill will actually be passed before Albertans head to the polls

"Time will have to tell on that, around how long the session is and the flow of it," said Hoffman.

"But I can tell you that I'm developing what I believe are bills that reflect our values and the values of Albertans, and I'll be bringing those forward for consideration."

UCP Leader Jason Kenney has promised his party would maintain public health-care funding but has also said he would not be surprised to see the issue become a central part of the campaign, especially for the government.

UCP leader Jason Kenney signed a "public health guarantee" at a campaign announcement in Edmonton in February. (Scott Neufeld/CBC )

"The NDP classic campaign tactic is a medi-scare campaign," Kenney said at an Edmonton news conference Monday.

Kenney insisted the NDP has lost every election it has run on health care — except in 2015. And that, he said, was an anomaly.

"The 2015 election was not about the NDP medicare, it was about people wanting to send a message to the PCs [Progressive Conservatives] that their time was over," he said.

It won't serve the NDP well to use the same approach in this campaign, Kenney said, because all the major parties are committed to publicly funding universal access to health care.

"We think that the top-of-mind issues for most Albertans in this campaign will be jobs and the economy," he said. "But people want to make sure that health care will be there for them when they need it."

Needs protection

Despite the federal Canada Health Act, some universal health-care services in Alberta are vulnerable to privatization, said Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare, a health-care advocacy organization.

Diagnostic imaging, for example, isn't insured under the federal legislation, which stipulates that all Canadians are entitled to universal care regardless of where they live, Azocar said.

"I think over the years governments, both federal and provincial, have chipped away at our public health-care system," Azocar said, "making it easier for the market to take hold of how we provide services."

She said Alberta led the way in 1993 when it opened the doors to private diagnostic-imaging companies.

Now some clinics "shamelessly advertise that you can pay ahead of people that may need it more than you," she said.

"I think a bill that would protect our public health care is very much needed and very much relevant."

Can't just 'wave a wand'

Hoffman said earlier this week the UCP's announcement that it plans to cancel a provincially run superlab to perform medical tests in Edmonton is evidence of where Kenney is heading.

"For Mr. Kenney to think that he can just wave a wand and go back in time, I think it's wrong," said Hoffman.

"I think it would be problematic and I think it would be bad for the health-care outcomes of people in Edmonton and north."

Other items said to be on the government's agenda include a large interim-supply bill to cover government costs until a new budget is presented.

The government has said it intends to introduce a budget sometime this spring.

CBC News has learned other pieces of legislation include the creation of a director to oversee safety-code compliance by municipalities. The director of safety codes would have the authority to impose fines and administrative penalties.

The Alberta Safety Codes Act covers rules and regulations in 10 specific areas, from building codes to elevator operation. 

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