Alberta health minister denies health care is in crisis

Horne says province trying to mend relationships with MDs

CALGARY — Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne said he's not aware of political intimidation in the province's medical system — and said the Tory government is trying to mend its relationship with physicians.

Under fire from opposition critics at a health-care town hall Tuesday, Horne acknowledged Alberta's medical system is in a "tumultuous" time, but said there's no crisis and the government is taking steps to improve public health care.

"I do not believe our health-care system as a whole is in crisis in Alberta," Horne said. "There are some relationships in our health-care system that need attention."

About 200 community members, physicians and other health-care professionals attended the forum Tuesday.

With an election call potentially just weeks away — and Alberta's doctors promising to ramp up public advocacy — Horne and representatives from four opposition parties fielded questions on politically charged health-care problems.

Horne fended off accusations from opposition parties that the Redford government has lost the trust of health workers and Albertans over its handling of medical issues in the wake of a scathing Health Quality Council of Alberta report.

Alberta Liberal health critic Dr. David Swann said a "chronic uncertainty" in the system must be resolved.

"The professionals in the system have not seen the kind of changes that would actually build trust, build a sense of solidarity, and a plan going forward they can buy into," he said.

Heather Forsyth of the Wildrose contended the health-care system is "broken," and the government must do a better job managing resources.

The panel, hosted by the Alberta Medical Association, the Canadian Medical Association and the Calgary Herald, also included Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor and Alberta NDP candidate Shannon Phillips.

It comes as the government has promised to enact 21 recommendations to improve care following the health quality council report last month that found lengthy emergency-room waits and widespread problems of physicians being bullied.

A judicial inquiry on health care will only examine allegations of queue-jumping in the Alberta medical system.

The health quality council report found stories of physicians who were being intimidated, but didn't identify specific cases.

"If we really want accountability in this system, we need that full judicial inquiry and we need it now, not after the election," Phillips said.

"Why don't we do what Albertans want, instead of what the government wants, in regards to the inquiry?" said Forsyth.

Horne said Tuesday the government has already begun work to build a "just and trusting" culture in health care and an inquiry isn't needed into physician intimidation. Asked whether there are cases of political interference from cabinet or caucus in the instances of intimidation documented in the report, Horne said: "Not to my knowledge."

The forum covered a broad range of issues, including plans for the Redford government's new family care clinics, alternate models of payment for physicians and an increased role for Alberta's pharmacists.

The province's plan for continuing care spaces also came under the microscope. The government has committed to reducing acute care bed occupancy to 95 per cent by Oct. 31, and that means, in part, ensuring more seniors are moved from hospital beds into nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

The health minister said there are 14,600 long-term care beds in Alberta, and as of January, about 325 Albertans waiting in acute care beds for the spaces.

"We're interested in placing people in facility-based care who need it. We are equally interested in facilitating a return to home with appropriate support for people who don't need to be in a facility."

Forsyth noted that in 2010, the government said Alberta had 14,800 long-term care beds and questioned why the number has gone down while the need increases.

Grilled about the new family care clinics, promised by Premier Alison Redford during her Tory leadership bid, Horne said work is underway to open three pilot projects by the end of this month. The centres are supposed to support better primary care in Alberta by having a team of health professionals in one facility with extended hours.

Critics questioned how the centres will be different from existing primary care networks. Horne said the family care clinics will be designed to offer small communities services to meet their unique needs.

Tuesday's forum came as the AMA appealed for an end to political interference in physician advocacy, and promised a "higher level of public advocacy."

The group took out full-page ads in the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, asking, "Just how sick is Alberta's health-care system."

The ads, which were published as doctors have been without a long-term agreement since March 2011, state that advocacy "requires physicians being involved in decisions that really matter surrounding the care of you and your family. It also requires an end to political interference and the creation of a respectful relationship between Alberta's doctors and the government."

Last month the Tory government imposed a one-year salary arrangement on Alberta doctors, including a two per cent increase in fees and a boost to the amount given to primary care networks to $62, up from $50 per enrolled patient.

Negotiations on a long-term deal with doctors are continuing.

Calgary Herald, Wed Mar 7 2012
Byline: Jamie Komarnicki

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