Health tops Tory agenda: Legislature set for new session

Alberta's health minister will announce plans this week for reshaping the provincial medical system in the face of rising costs and hospital overcrowding, but the fate of health regions won't be decided until summer.

Ron Liepert will bring his plans for reform to the Tory caucus as a new legislative session opens today, approximately one month after he took over as minister and promised bold changes that could include reducing the number of health regions in Alberta.

The tough-talking minister has said a broad range of proposals for change are on the table, including the controversial Mazankowski report.

But he said any decisions on the number of health regions will be announced in June.

"Our plan will lay out some initiatives we hope to accomplish over the next year," said Liepert, who will likely make the plan public on Wednesday.

"I'm not taking anything forward at this stage that will change (the number of health regions), but on or before June 15, I will take before caucus a new governance structure."

Government's plans for health reforms come as Alberta's bill for the medical system reaches $13 billion a year, making it government's single largest expense. Patients, meanwhile, are facing long lineups in emergency rooms as hospitals grapple with bed shortages.

Liepert has said the system must change, but his musings about reforms have sparked controversy as public health-care advocates and labour leaders vow to fight any move toward privatization.

The 2001 report by former federal cabinet minister Don Mazankowski recommended boosting the mix of private, public and not-for-profit providers in health care as well as raising new sources of revenue in the medical system.

Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour said allowing more privately delivered care will not fix the problems facing the province's health system.

"If Minister Liepert and Premier Ed Stelmach think the recent election has given them a mandate to turn the health-care system on its head, they've got another think coming," said McGowan. "There will be huge opposition to major privatization in the system."

Friends of Medicare say they are concerned about any move toward allowing more private health care, saying government should concentrate on addressing staffing shortages in Calgary and Edmonton hospitals.

Suzanne Marshall, executive director of the organization, also argued reducing the number of health regions could destabilize the system.

"It seems to me they really need to focus on the system and do whatever it takes to bring health services up to par," Marshall said.

Other organizations, however, support a move towards privatization and believe Liepert should make fundamental changes in this area.

Nadeem Esmail of the Fraser Institute said Alberta should follow the lead of countries such as Sweden, which allows private medical insurance and a private medical system that offers competition to public hospitals.

"The problem is we always look inward and ask what we can do within the current health system when it's clear this is failing Albertans," said Esmail, a senior health policy analyst with the think tank.

Liepert said his proposal will help ensure the system becomes more accessible to patients as well as sustainable. His "action plan" will lay out goals for shorter term initiatives, although it isn't clear if all of his long-term plans will be made public this week.

"There's a recognition we can't deliver 1960s health care in the 21st century," said the minister. "We have to look at different ways of delivering health care."

Calgary Herald, Page A1, Mon Apr 14 2008
Byline: Michelle Lang

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