In a preview of upcoming provincial election debates, Health Minister Fred Horne took on four party leaders Monday night in a town hall discussion on the future of health care in Alberta.
Amid continuing care, the use of health technology and worker morale, some of the most emotional exchanges of the night erupted when a member of the audience asked if any of the parties had "the political will" to fix problems that have been around for decades, such as long waiting lists and inadequate staffing. It was four against one, as the opposition leaders blasted Horne for his government's failings to make sufficient progress on the problems.
Horne said the Redford government was on the right track, adding that people need to stop looking for a "magic fix" to complicated issues.
The best health systems in the world "look for incremental improvement based on consultations with front-line staff," Horne told a crowd of about 300 people packed into a lecture hall at University Hospital.
But Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said Horne was being disingenuous, since the Alberta health system hasn't shown incremental improvement on reducing waiting times or ensuring the system has enough doctors, nurses and technicians. She said the government's decision to stick with a system man-aged by the Alberta Health Services superboard would prevent further progress, since it will "trap" workers in an organization that doesn't work.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said the system has still not recovered from the damage done by former health minister Ron Liepert, who championed the switch from local health authorities to AHS.
"With all due respect, minister, your government has been working on this for 40 years," Mason said to scattered applause. "The NDP invented health care and we will always be its most reliable defender."
Liberal Leader Dr. Raj Sherman said his will to fix the problems was evident through his courage in at-tacking the government when he was still a member of the PC caucus. He said his party can solve issues quickly, in part through more investment in long-term care and home care.
"We don't need incremental change. People are suffering right now," he said, while Horne shook his head.
Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor said his group went through building a party from scratch precisely because they felt the current government was not up to the task of delivering essential services.
The forum, hosted by the Edmonton Journal and the Alberta Medical Association, featured questions from both members of the public and health-care organizations.
Another topic that produced fire-works came when a retired obstetrician asked the panellists how they would curb queue-jumping, admit-ting that he "unashamedly" engaged in the practice once to get his wife a CT scan after hours.
Again, opposition leaders used the opportunity to go after Horne on his government's recent decision to hold a public inquiry into allegations that politically connected people have been queue-jumping to get better or faster care.
While the health minister said Premier Alison Redford had honoured her promise by proceeding with the inquiry, Sherman went on the attack. "Fred, I've got to call you on this. The premier is misleading the public," he said, arguing the inquiry should also look into the alleged intimidation of doctors. He said the best way to pre-vent queue-jumping was not to have a waiting line in the first place.
Mason and Smith also said they were not convinced the inquiry, as structured, would do any good.
Other questions focused on improving rural health care and ensuring private health-care providers are paying workers a fair wage.
All the opposition leaders said they would divert money from bureaucracy to front-line services and introduce more local control into decisions about health-care delivery. Smith said her party hopes to move away from the AHS model and instead look at some sort of "hybrid" system of public and private care that is used in countries such as Switzerland and Germany.
"The solution doesn't end with a superboard or regional health authorities. It ends with the defeat of this government," Taylor said.
Horne said the province is moving to give local health advisory councils more say.
"But we don't believe they need to be elected or that we need to go back to a system of governance from the 1970s."
A similar town hall was held last week in Calgary.
Edmonton Journal, Tues Mar 13 2012
Byline: Keith Gerein