Alberta premier says he won't follow Quebec plan to levy fee on COVID-19 unvaccinated
'If we go down that road, we are completely rubbishing the whole principle of universality of health care'
Premier Jason Kenney says Alberta will not be following Quebec's plan to impose a financial penalty on those who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Kenney says data shows the unvaccinated are proving to be a vastly greater burden on the hospital system than the vaccinated, but making them pay extra would not be fair.
"If we go down that road, we are completely rubbishing the whole principle of universality of health care, which is why Alberta absolutely will not follow the decision of Quebec," Kenney said Tuesday night in a Facebook town-hall meeting.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault had announced earlier in the day that he plans to make unvaccinated adult residents pay a "significant" financial penalty, given that they are occupying a disproportionate number of beds in hospitals.
Kenney conceded the unvaccinated are taking up far more hospital and intensive care beds, which has led to a domino effect of cancelled surgeries as health workers are reassigned to deal with the pandemic.
But he said levying a fee would be akin to making a smoker pay more for lung cancer treatment or charging a high-risk skier for being injured and airlifted out of the back country.
"There is a larger and deeper principle here, which is we have a universal health-care system," the premier said.
"It doesn't matter where you come from, how old you are, what your medical condition is, how wealthy you are, or what life choices you've made. You are guaranteed access to our health-care system, free of cost, for medically necessary services."
Watch: No health tax for Alberta, Jason Kenney says
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking in Ottawa, said he wants to see more details before passing judgment on Quebec's plan, but added the province has given assurances that it won't violate the Canada Health Act.
Alberta, as with other jurisdictions worldwide, is fighting a rapid, spiralling rise in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Kenney's United Conservative government sharply slashed attendance at public events before Christmas and vaccine passports are still necessary to get into non-essential businesses, including bars and restaurants.
Students from kindergarten to Grade 12 were sent back to class this week after Kenney promised extra masks and millions more rapid-tests for schools.
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to Quebec's pitch for a tax on the unvaccinated
Rapid test delivery delayed
Last week, he said a million tests had arrived and three million more would be arriving each week after that for a total of 10 million from a private supplier. That's on top of four million from the federal government.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said on Twitter late Tuesday that the shipments were held up.
"The expected supply of at-home rapid test kits has been delayed from the federal government and manufacturers. Alberta Health is working hard to obtain more supply as soon as possible," Hinshaw tweeted.
The Opposition NDP has urged the government to publish projections on how bad the Omicron surge is expected to be and to supply better masks and high-efficiency air filters for schools.
There are well over 58,000 reported active COVID-19 cases in the province, but Hinshaw has said reducing testing capacity means the true number of infections is likely to be 10 times higher. She said this week that the province is bracing for a "significant impact" on health care.
As of Tuesday, there were 708 people in hospital with COVID-19, 80 of them requiring critical care.
Previous waves of the pandemic have already led to thousands of non-urgent surgeries being cancelled as staff are redeployed. Health Minister Jason Copping has said the province doesn't expect to catch up until the middle of this year.
'A little bit of chaos'
Neurologist Dr. Mary Lou Myles, joining the NDP at a news conference Wednesday, said staff reassignment has hurt multiple sclerosis patients.
Myles said early intervention and diagnosis is critical for MS patients, but a consultation with a neurologist that should take — and has previously taken — weeks or months is now taking a year.
Earlier diagnosis means earlier treatment and a better chance to avoid damage to the central nervous system and subsequent debilitating disabilities, she said.
"In the MS clinic itself, the redeployment of specialized nurses has had an impact," said Myles.
"One of the nurses has been redeployed for almost a year. Other redeployments have been quite sudden and unpredictable, leading to kind of a little bit of chaos."