Health care a top issue for Albertans but not for UCP leadership candidates

·5 min read
Candidates (left to right, Todd Loewen, Danielle Smith, Rajan Sawhney, Rebecca Schulz, Leela Aheer, Travis Toews and Brian Jean) attend the United Conservative Party of Alberta leadership candidates' debate in Medicine Hat in July. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Candidates (left to right, Todd Loewen, Danielle Smith, Rajan Sawhney, Rebecca Schulz, Leela Aheer, Travis Toews and Brian Jean) attend the United Conservative Party of Alberta leadership candidates' debate in Medicine Hat in July. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Problems accessing a family doctor or getting timely treatment in an emergency room are on the minds of many Albertans but health care isn't getting much attention during the United Conservative Party leadership race.

Only three of the seven candidates have specific health-care platforms posted on their campaign websites.

The others either have yet to release their policies, such as Leela Aheer, or are more focused on enacting measures to appeal to those still upset about vaccine mandates and public health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Janet Brown, an Alberta-based opinion researcher and pollster, said research she released in June showed Albertans' top priorities are inflation, health care and education. Practically no one mentioned sovereignty, freedom or autonomy — issues that have dominated the current contest to replace Jason Kenney as UCP leader.

"What gets most of the attention in this race are not the things that are of top of mind for Albertans, and the things that are top of mind are getting ignored," Brown said in an interview with CBC News.

"Health care, the second top priority, is one of those things that's getting very little attention, which is surprising given how important it is for people."

The platforms presented have common themes: returning to "local decision making" on health care, speeding up Canadian credentialing for foreign-trained medical professionals, and reviewing how the Alberta government responded to the pandemic.

Alberta Health Services, the provincial health authority that became a scapegoat during the pandemic, also figures largely.

Candidates want to review its structure, cull middle management or fire the entire board.

Actions aimed at mitigating the alleged infringements of personal freedom during the pandemic dominate the platforms of Danielle Smith, Todd Loewen and Brian Jean.

Lack of imagination, expert says

Candidates vow they will never impose vaccine mandates or restrictions. They also propose measures to diminish the role of public health authorities in Alberta.

Jean, in particular, focuses on changing the role of the chief medical officer of health to make it more accountable to the public and legislative assembly.

That includes changing the Public Health Act to mandate the establishment of a "religious and other assemblies advisory council" during a public health emergency. The council would advise the CMOH on how to protect the rights of religious assembly and public protest.

Steven Lewis, a health-care consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, looked at the platforms for CBC News.

Lewis said there is too much of a focus on the pandemic and public health and not enough discussion about solving critical problems in health care like massive backlogs in elective surgeries, dwindling access to family doctors and a demoralized workforce.

"If you look at these platforms collectively, it's a sadly lost opportunity to inject some creativity, imagination and forward thinking into solving longstanding problems," Lewis said.

"Who has anything beyond a cursory sentence or two about primary care, which is the real issue?"

Some candidates want to increase the supply of physicians and nurses, particularly in rural areas, either by increasing the number of seats in medical and nursing schools, speeding up Canadian credentials for international professionals and offering incentives.

Lewis said these frequently proposed ideas have proven not to work.

"The idea that more numbers is going to solve your problem, particularly in rural areas, is a myth," he said.

Physicians working in rural areas frequently face heavy workloads due to staff shortages. Demographics are also a factor, Lewis said.

"Urbanization is a relentless trend, particularly among professionals of all types," he said. "Nobody is flocking to live in rural areas, especially physicians."

Toews staying the course

If she becomes premier, Danielle Smith wants to give each Albertan a $300 health spending account to use on services not covered by medicare like counsellors, dietitians and massage therapists.

The former Wildrose leader and radio host has proposed asking the Health Quality Council of Alberta to review rural and urban hospitals to find facilities that are underused. She wants to fire the board of Alberta Health Services and appoint a commissioner to provide oversight on new management.

Toews, the former finance minister who represents the riding of Grande Prairie-Wapiti, has focused his attention on bolstering rural health care by providing incentives to bring practitioners to areas outside the large centres and spending $50 million a year to update rural health-care centres. He wants to appoint an associate minister who would be responsible for increasing health capacity.

Toews wants to encourage more private health-care providers to provide publicly funded services. He wants to help reduce COVID-related surgery backlogs by signing agreements so Albertans can get procedures in other provinces and in the United States that would be covered by medicare.

Brown said Toews' platform relies on the agenda the UCP government has rolled out over the past three years, which includes using for-profit private companies to deliver publicly-funded health-care services.

"Toews' approach would … continue to focus on outsourcing private delivery, making the system more accountable, making the system more decentralized," she said.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press
Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Sawhney, the former transportation minister, wants Alberta to expand home care and increase the use of virtual medicine and mobile clinics.

She is proposing a centralized province-wide list to refer patients to specialists. Sawhney also speaks about the need to respect health-care workers and finalize a deal with the Alberta Medical Association.

Both Sawhney and her former cabinet colleague Rebecca Schulz want to beef up primary care networks, where patients can access a wider range of health professionals in one spot.

Schulz, the former minister of children's services, is even proposing non-profit community care clinics in areas with more vulnerable populations and walk-in clinics near emergency rooms so nurses in charge of triage can direct patients with less serious ailments there.

Schulz also wants to expand the use of mobile clinics and virtual care in rural areas and increase access to home care for seniors.

Schulz is the only candidate to propose providing financial assistance for people undergoing fertility treatments as done in seven other Canadian provinces.