The Current

Alberta health-care workers 'drawing the line' on further privatization: union leader

Alberta’s plan to outsource up to 11,000 health-care jobs in laboratory, linen, cleaning and in-patient food services is “the thin edge of the wedge to further privatization,” says the head of the union representing those employees.

Province says plan to outsource thousands of jobs would save $600 million annually

Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, stands amid striking workers outside Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital. Smith says workers are 'taking a stand' against privatization of health care. (David Bajer/CBC)

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Alberta's plan to outsource up to 11,000 health-care jobs in laboratory, linen, cleaning and in-patient food services is "the thin edge of the wedge to further privatization," says the head of the union representing those employees.

"These workers are drawing a line in the sand as to … the further erosion of the public health-care system," Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, told The Current's Matt Galloway about a recent strike.

"They know that by working for a private company, the only way that company is going to make profits is by cutting their salaries even more. And these workers are taking a stand."

Hundreds of staff at hospitals across Alberta walked off the job last Monday to protest the job outsourcing, in a move the province described as "illegal strike activity." The province has since threatened disciplinary action against those workers, including fining, suspending or firing them from their jobs.

Workers say they are exhausted, living paycheque to paycheque, and their frustrations have hit a breaking point. Smith said most of the employees whose jobs are at risk are women or new Canadians, and they are already marginalized.

The Alberta government argues it is not making cuts to health care, and that its plan to outsource jobs will save up to $600 million a year.

Skepticism about financial savings

Smith said he has "no doubt about it" that further privatization of health care is in the works in his province. He cited a move to establish standalone private surgery clinics as an example.

Over the years, health-care spending in Alberta has not kept up with population growth and demand, Smith said.

"There are ways to be able to redirect funding, I think, to the front lines," he said, adding that could be done by changing how the wealthy are taxed.

"The government's just not interested in that."

Economist Trevor Tombe says any government savings would be a result of lower employment or wages. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Trevor Tombe, an associate professor of economics at the University of Calgary, said it's wise to be skeptical about how much money the government claims it will save through outsourcing without seeing an analysis of how that would work.

Any savings would have to come from lower employment or lower wages, he said, "and outsourcing is one way to do that."

In a statement to The Current, Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro's office said "almost all the changes in staffing will be through contracting, which was used very widely under the NDP and will not reduce services."

The staffing changes "will be mainly [a] change of employer rather than overall net reductions in employment," the statement reads. "Any reductions will be managed through attrition as much as possible."

Lorian Hardcastle is an associate professor at the University of Calgary. (Colin Hall/CBC)

Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor researching health law and policy at the University of Calgary, agrees with Smith that there has been a move to privatize more of Alberta's health-care system.

She said there are examples of other countries that have a mix of both private and public health care, such as Germany, France and the Netherlands. However, the "evidence does not tend to show that that option is cheaper," she said.

"When you're involving multiple payers, administrative costs go up," Hardcastle added. "And many of the countries that people point to as being successful models of parallel private health-care systems actually spend more per capita than we do in Canada." 

'Devil's in the details,' says Tombe

But Tombe isn't totally against some privatization of health care.

There are already many privately financed and privately delivered health services in Canada, including massage therapy, vision and dental care, he explained. Doctors themselves are a private corporation, providing family physician services and then billing the government a negotiated rate, he added.

"About 30 per cent of overall health expenditures in Canada [are] private, so I think the conversation needs to be about the appropriate mix and design and financing," said Tombe.

"And too often in Canada the discussion is short-circuited by an instinctual aversion to that word 'private' when it comes to health care."

As for whether or not that will save the government any money, that would vary widely depending on the service at hand, he said.

"So the devil's in the details whether it would actually receive savings," said Tombe. "But it should be a part of the conversation."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Lindsay Rempel.

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