Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping has been tasked with ensuring the government takes quick action to bring substantive improvements to emergency room services, clear surgical backlogs in the province and create health spending accounts.
Premier Danielle Smith outlined her wishes for the ministry in a mandate letter sent to the health minister earlier this week.
“Albertans are counting on us and they rightfully expect their government to address the challenges they are facing with our full attention and action,” Smith wrote.
Other mandates outlined in her letter include working with the minister of technology and innovation to establish health spending accounts, ensuring all areas of Alberta receive prompt and efficient ambulance service and addressing health-care staffing challenges, particularly in rural areas. (See full list of expectations below).
During her UCP leadership campaign, Smith said her government would provide every Albertan with a $300 health spending account to use for health expenses not covered by Alberta Health insurance.
Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor in the Faculty of Law and Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, said health spending accounts are an “extremely inefficient way of trying to improve access to health services.”
“The main concern with health spending accounts is that while they may be equal in that all Albertans will get the same amount of money, health issues are not distributed equally,” she explained.
“Some people have a high income and have insurance through work and so have no problems meeting their health needs. There are then other people for whom $300 doesn’t even scratch the surface of their health needs.”
Hardcastle said it comes down to being equitable, not equal, adding there are other ways to achieve better health outcomes and better health equity for Albertans.
“We could, for example, lower the income threshold for people to qualify for public pharmaceutical benefits. We could expand eligibility to a variety of health programs. We could increase the monthly payments that we give to people with disabilities. And I think all of those things would be a better use of the same money than giving everyone $300 that they may or may not need.”
She believes the motivation behind the payments is political.
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“It is politically popular to give everyone money and to tell them that they can spend it on health services as they see fit,” Hardcastle said.
“While I think it is likely to be politically popular — and so it isn’t surprising to me that this is what’s happening in an election year — that same amount of money could be much better spent elsewhere in the health-care system targeted towards actual need.”
Copping is to work on these things while keeping inflation and affordability in mind, Smith said.
“I know that all of our frontline workers have health spending accounts. It’s something that was important in the collective bargaining process,” Smith said at a news conference on Thursday.
“If this is something that all of our frontline workers have, we should make sure this is something all Albertans have. It’s a way of augmenting and supporting things that aren’t covered under Alberta health care.”
Smith also said plans to implement the health spending accounts will be announced in the future.
Opposition health critic David Shepherd maintains Smith’s plans for health care in Alberta will “create more chaos and hardship for all Albertans.”
“Across the province, parents and emergency room staff are crying out for support but the leader of the UCP is silent,” Shepherd said in a statement Wednesday. “Frontline health-care staff are exhausted and demoralized after years of this government’s incompetence and attacks, and all the premier has to offer is more disruption and disrespect.
“Danielle Smith, the health minister and the new interim CMOH need to get up in front of Albertans today and tell us what they are going to do to support families through this immediate crisis in children’s health care.
“It’s clear, when it comes to health care, Albertans simply can’t trust the UCP. They don’t need more chaos — they need more care.”
Smith said she expects Copping to deliver on the following commitments for Albertans:
- Develop a series of reforms to the health-care system that restore decision-making authority to the local level, incentivize regional innovation and competition to provide increased medical services and surgeries, and that attracts health-care professionals domestically and internationally
- Assess the effectiveness of our health-care institutions including the HQCA (Health Quality Council of Alberta) and AHS and develop a plan to improve health-care delivery and health-care outcomes while managing costs. This includes mechanisms to support local decision making within AHS and supporting our frontline health-care workers
- Take immediate tangible steps to have AHS improve EMS response times, decrease surgical backlogs and cut emergency room wait times
- Address health-care staffing challenges, particularly in rural areas, through improving health workforce planning, evaluating retention policies, leveraging the scope of allied health professionals, streamlining immigration and certification processes, and further increasing the number of training seats for health-care professionals in Alberta. This includes fulling implementing the recently negotiated AMA (Alberta Medical Association) agreement
- Support primary care as the foundation of our health-care system through assessing alternative models of care and leveraging all health-care professionals. This includes continuing the work of modernizing Alberta’s primary care system initiative, assessing alternative compensation models for family physicians and nurse practitioners, improving the management of chronic disease and increasing the number of Albertans attached to a medical home
- Improve provision of care to seniors through implementing recommendations coming out of the facility-based continuing care review and the advancing palliative and end-of-life care in Alberta report. This includes continuing to add continuing care congregate spaces as well as supporting seniors to stay in their homes longer with additional supports and focus on providing appropriate home care
- Work with municipalities, doctors and allied health providers to identify strategies to attract and retain health-care workers to rural Alberta
- With the minister of Technology and Innovation as lead, work to establish health spending accounts, assess the inter-functionality of the 1,300 or more IT systems currently in use in health (as identified in the 2017 auditor general report), as well as pilot existing software apps that can be used to streamline ER waiting times and more effectively manage shift schedules
- Establish a task force of medical professionals under the Alberta Health Quality Council to conduct a data review of the last several years of health information with a view to offering recommendations on how to better manage a future pandemic
- Work with parliamentary secretary for EMS Reform RJ Sigurdson to address EMS challenges
- Work with the parliamentary secretary for Rural Health Tany Yao to address rural health challenges such as access and health-care professionals
–With files from Paula Tran, 770 CHQR.