NDP health critic takes aim at UCP decision to contract out surgeries

Health Minister Jason Copping announced last week a contract with Canadian Surgery Solutions to provide 3,000 orthopedic surgeries, which he claimed will free up spaces in hospitals and reduce wait times.

Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd, on the other hand, doesn’t believe contracting more surgeries into private facilities is the right step forward.

“The big issue is not about infrastructure or physical capacity. The main challenge we have right now is the lack of staff needed to perform those surgeries.”

The UCP went to war with physicians back in 2020, said Shepherd, and kept it up throughout the pandemic. This, according to the NDP, resulted in large numbers of health-care professionals leaving the province.

While the Alberta Medical Association managed to negotiate an agreement with Health Minister Jason Copping last September, physicians had been without one for months.

“The lack of contract and antagonism of the provincial government towards doctors and the lack of trust, it’s done serious damage to capacity within the health-care system, including surgery,” Shepherd says. “The repair of that damage still needs to be done and I’m not sure it can be accomplished under the current government.”

Another issue Shepherd takes with an expansion of private clinics is it will draw staff away from the public system and potentially cause a critical staffing shortage.

“Creating a private system that will undermine the public system is deeply concerning,” he said.

The model being put forward by the UCP aims for lower costs and higher efficiency, one Shepherd says can and has been implemented in the public system in the past.

“Right here in Edmonton we have a bone and joint centre connected to the Royal Alexandra Hospital, which makes use of this very model.”

The NDP, as the official opposition, believes dollars should be invested in the public system to realize those cost efficiencies and increase capacity without undermining the public system and erasing the private profit motive.

“The fact is every dollar that goes into the pocket of a corporate profit is a dollar not being investing in health care,” Shepherd said.

When the NDP came into government in 2015, several chartered surgical facilities were already under contract with AHS.

Shepherd stated, “We did maintain those facilities and that capacity. When we came into government we inherited the health-care system that had been built by conservatives. It was in some level of chaos after years of erratic funding and riding the roller coaster of oil prices.”

The NDP doesn’t propose to cancel existing contracts, nor changing the mix that currently exists. The party’s aim, according to Shepherd, is to invest future dollars in publicly owned and operated facilities rather than subsidizing corporate profits through new chartered surgical facilities.

At a roundtable discussion between media and Copping on Jan. 3, the health minister was asked about further privatizing surgeries in Alberta and if it would attract staff away from the public system.

Copping stated, “This is the public system. It is no different than individuals going to see their family doctors.”

There are facilities contracted by AHS to deliver surgeries and expand capacity. “It is the same doctors and anesthesiologists that are assigned by AHS. The notion that this is going to steal staff from the public system, this is all the public system.”

He went onto say this was a better use of limited resources, claiming it has been successful and has decreased wait times.

SAMANTHA JOHNSON, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Medicine Hat News