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Alberta seniors asked to leave health minister’s office

EDMONTON – A group of seniors, camping out at Health Minister Fred Horne’s constituency office, was told to leave early Friday morning, after remaining inside the office well into the night Thursday.

Early Friday morning, the group was asked to leave the office by police.

“Seven of us did bed down in this constituency office last night,” says Noel Somerville, Public Interest Alberta (PIA)’s Seniors Task Force chairperson.

“However, what we had planned as an old-fashioned sit-in, actually became a sleepover with the minister’s staff, his chief of staff, and his press secretary, and another constituency staff member. About twenty to one in the morning, the police were called and came in and asked us to leave in a very respectful way, and we agreed to do so because at that point, it was pretty clear that we were involved in a contest of wills.”

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The group organized the sit-in in order to get a meeting with the minister and premier about the seniors’ drug program.

“We’re not anarchists,” said Somerville, “we’re a bunch of old guys who are really kind of ticked off at the way we’re being treated, and we will keep on making that clear.”

Late Thursday, food was reportedly dropped off outside the office for the protesters. However, they’ve been told once the office door opens, the sit-in ends.

A group of seniors remained inside Health Minister Fred Horne’s constituency office Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014.
A group of seniors remained inside Health Minister Fred Horne’s constituency office Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. Wes Rosa, Global News

“We’re here because right now we are demanding a meeting with Minister Horne and with Premier Redford to discuss our concerns,” says Somerville.

Demonstrators say the Alberta government is planning to eliminate the seniors’ drug program and replace it with a means-tested system.

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“If instituted, this plan will become a form of surtax on people simply because they are sick, and we don’t know anyone who thinks that is acceptable public policy,” explains Somerville.

The group says the premier promised, in writing, she would not eliminate the seniors drug plan, one month before she won the PC party leadership.

That promise was reiterated, it says, in another letter, signed by Minister Horne, one month before the last provincial election.

On Friday, Minister Horne released a statement about the demonstration.

“Yesterday, Public Interest Alberta (PIA) and Friends of Medicare (FOM) issued media releases protesting changes to drug and supplementary health programs for Alberta seniors.  These statements, which include allegations that the government is cutting seniors benefits, are inaccurate.  I would like to correct the record.  At no time have we indicated we would cut benefits, and to suggest so is misleading.

 “In Budget 2013, the Government of Alberta signaled it would move to consolidate the 18 current drug and supplementary benefit programs to a single plan.  The purpose of this initiative is not to cut benefits or costs as has been suggested.  Our goals are clear: to provide access to the approximately 20 per cent of Albertans who currently have no drug or benefit coverage, and to ensure our province can continue to provide the broadest possible range of drugs and other supplemental benefits to Albertans today, and for generations to come.

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 “In the months following Budget 2013, a number of stakeholder groups contacted my ministry and MLA colleagues requesting that more time be allocated for consultation prior to implementing a new plan.  In November, I indicated publicly that implementation of a new plan would be deferred from the original date of January 1, 2014.  This will allow the opportunity for further consultation and discussion and ensure any proposed changes consider the perspectives of all who have an interest in ensuring we can continue to provide the benefits valued so highly to our growing population.  To suggest that any changes are imminent or that there is a hidden plan to move ahead with implementation of changes is simply not accurate,” the statement continued.

“Yesterday, a small number of people, including representatives from the PIA and FOM advocacy groups occupied my constituency office in Edmonton to demand a meeting with myself and Premier Redford to discuss their concerns.  I offered, both through my staff and personally by telephone, a number of options for meeting dates and look forward to a response to that offer.

 “When my office closed at 4:30 the group was politely asked to leave and the request was repeated several times during the course of the evening.  At 12:30 a.m. the group left peacefully and respectfully, allowing my staff to finally return home to their families.”

“Our experience with government consultation in the past has not been very good,” said Somerville on Friday morning, “but we’ll follow up on that.”

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The seniors organizations say they have been requesting a meeting with the health minister since last September.

“Since that letter in September requesting a meeting, I have been in touch with his office in numerous occasions by telephone, seeking a date for a meeting,” says Somerville. “I have got absolutely nowhere – I have not even got an acknowledgement of the letter.”

“They’ve provided absolutely no details about how this would be done. They said it would come into effect on Jan. 1, 2014. The only thing we’ve heard from them is that its implementation has been delayed.”

A ministry spokesperson says the date was pushed back so that more input could be gathered.

“As you may recall, pharmacare was originally scheduled to begin on Jan. 1. During the last sitting, the minister did make public that the implementation date had been delayed pending further consultation with stakeholders,” says Matthew Grant, press secretary for the minister of health.

 “That’s what happening. We’re actually consulting with stakeholders now and we have received input. And, I hear today, the minister has offered two meetings, both in February, and we look forward to a response.”

“We have received a package from Public Interest Alberta that is being reviewed by the department as we speak, and as of this morning, two meetings have been offered with Minister Horne in early February.

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“It’s regrettable that a letter had not gone out sooner, we acknowledge that,” Grant added.

“We will meet with them in February, probably on the 13th,” said Somerville on Friday. “We send a proposal to him back in September, and we’re just now acknowledged receipt of it.”

“The government values input from Alberta’s seniors,” adds Neala Barton, spokesperson for the premier’s office, “that’s precisely why Minister Horne is asking for the public’s feedback about the province’s pharmacare system.  The Premier has absolute confidence in Minister Horne to continue collecting input from Albertans. The Minister has already committed to meeting with Public Interest Alberta representatives and I know Minister Horne will ensure the Premier is aware of that meeting’s outcome.

But, the seniors say the response from the government took far too long.

“I don’t know what we have to do to get their attention, to let them understand that these are important issues to us,” says Carole Wodak, whose last sit-in took place 45 years ago. “They are elected to do what we need them to do.”

The group says it won’t leave the minister’s constituency office until they have a meeting with Premier Redford and Minister Horne confirmed.

Grant says he can’t speak for the premier, but stresses meetings with the minister have been offered.

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