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Health expert calls for new debates on health-care spending in Alberta

WATCH ABOVE: What to do about health care is an issue that often divides Albertans. Fletcher Kent takes a closer look at the debate and why it's about more than just health.

Wendy Antoniuk is ready to go to the hospital.

Her crutches are waiting by her front door. Her suitcase is packed.

On Friday, her right hip will be replaced.

“It’s very painful now to sit,” Antoniuk says. “It’s really interfering with my quality of life.”

Of course, to say Antoniuk is ready might not be entirely accurate. She’s more than ready. It has been 18 months since she first saw her doctor about the hip.

To be clear, she isn’t complaining. She knew to start the process early.

“Eighteen months isn’t bad. I think if I started to see my physician now and had to wait 18 months, it would be too long.”

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Antoniuk is familiar with the health-care system. She had her knee replaced five years ago and knew about joint replacement wait times.

Right now, Alberta Health figures show 90 per cent of patients receive a hip replacement within 47 weeks and 90 per cent of patients get a knee replacement within 54 weeks.

Governments and health authorities have been trying to reduce these wait times for years. There are now bone and joint centres and more pre-op consultations. Antoniuk says she feels the new services have helped her.

Questions of access and how to improve it are at the heart of health-care debates in Alberta, and such debates are often important in other elections.

The parties are starting to talk about health.

WATCH: When the Alberta NDP introduced Bill 1 just before the writ dropped, they made it clear that protecting public health care was a priority. But as Heather Yourex-West reports, Alberta health care as it stands is far from universal.

Plenty of private healthcare already in place in Alberta
Plenty of private healthcare already in place in Alberta

READ MORE: Alberta throne speech focuses on protecting public health care

During this week’s brief, one-day spring session, the NDP introduced Bill 1, An Act to Protect Public Health Care. It prohibits two-tier medicine, extra billing, private payment for insured services and queue-jumping.

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Weeks earlier, UCP Leader Jason Kenney signed a “public health guarantee” that said he vowed to maintain a publicly-funded health-care system.

READ MORE: UCP Leader Jason Kenney wants to explore private health-care options

Kenney also said it was wise to explore private delivery of some health services within the public system. Laundry services is one such service that he has promised to take out of the public sphere.

None of Alberta’s political parties have released a complete health platform yet.

A researcher with the University of Calgary’s school of public policy says the public versus private debate oversimplifies the issue. It diverts attention away from what he considers to be a significant public policy problem that’s about public health and finances.

“Something needs to be done,” Ron Kneebone says. “It doesn’t matter who’s elected in this election, someone needs to take steps to stop the growth in health-care [costs].”

Health-care costs in Alberta have climbed $7.3 billion in the last decade. They now make up 36.2 per cent of the entire provincial budget.

Kneebone points out if you take every penny the province collects in personal income tax, it doesn’t pay the whole annual health tab.

Alberta’s per capita health-care spending is the highest in the county. It’s 10 per cent higher than the national average.

Kneebone says Albertans need to be open to discussing all options to get a handle on health-care costs but also said there have to be new debates and this election is a good time to have them.

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“Governments need to understand that health care is more than just doctors and MRI machines and hospitals,” says Kneebone, who wants governments to consider spending differently.

“Not necessarily on docs and nurses, but more on providing people with housing so they don’t get sick in the first place,” he says.

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Kneebone hopes Albertans ask candidates about these issues during the campaign.

Antoniuk says she sees a need for some change but she’s happy with how the health-care system has served her. If there are changes, she wants the core values protected and she certainly doesn’t want to pay for a hip surgery.

Right now, she plans to stop thinking about how the health-care system operates. Instead, she simply wants it to operate well on Friday.

It has been a long time since Antoniuk first talked to doctors about her hip. She can’t wait to once again live without pain.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to bowling. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do that this fall, but I used to 10-pin bowl.”