Health issue isn't going away any time soon Discussion likely to be front and centre in coming leadership contests
By Jodie Sinnema, Edmonton Journal May 14, 2011 StoryPhotos ( 2 )
More Images » Outgoing Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann says he is determined to rebuild accountability in government and health.Photograph by: Bruce Edwards, The Journal, Edmonton JournalNow that the spring legislature session has wrapped up, Dr. Paul Parks is worried the public's attention to the health system will wane.
Although critics suggest all the political drama in the legislature over the last two sessions has tarnished the hard work of Alberta Health Services and stalled its ability to move forward, Parks knows the daily debates and political grandstanding in the house has highlighted systemic problems after years of status quo.
"It resonates that this is an important issue to Albertans," said Parks, the emergency room physician whose letter to the premier last fall warned of an impending collapse of the emergency system if nothing was done to bring down waiting times and save patients dying in hospital waiting rooms.
That letter sparked one of the most raucous legislature sessions in Alberta history, with Dr. Raj Sherman being punted from the Tory caucus. He has since said he is joining the Liberals and will run for the leadership.
This spring session continued the health-care focus with outgoing Liberal Leader David Swann, a doctor himself, hounding the government daily to call a public inquiry into allegations of physician intimidation.
Day after day, he tabled statements of claims from doctors or letters from nurses, claiming they were gagged by a system that didn't want them to speak out about long waiting times or bad patient care.
That tactic worked well, though the government never capitulated, said Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist at Grant MacEwan University.
"David Swann was really at his best on this file. He actually displayed a feistiness which had been lacking when he first came on the scene," Mensah said.
"The difficulty is the government has portrayed a very united and focused approach on this. They don't want to buckle under from the demands of the opposition, so I think we're in a stalemate on the issue."
At times, the session seemed to be more about scoring political points than improving care, Mensah said. "Sometimes it took away from the health care issues and wait times," he said.
Dr. Tom Noseworthy agreed. "(The legislative session) has been overtly focused on health, but I don't believe any results or outcomes have come from all that attention health has received," said Noseworthy, a health policy expert from Calgary.
"I think the attention on health care is name-and-blame recently."
Name the doctors with complaints -Dr. Ciaran McNamee, Dr. Lloyd Maybaum, Dr. Stan Houston, Dr. Tim Winton, Dr. Anne Fanning and others -then blame the government.
Noseworthy thinks the government's refusal to launch a public inquiry to coincide with the Health Quality Council of Alberta's review into allegations of physician intimidation and patient care issues, is hurting the good progress made by Alberta Health Services, which has moved beyond former CEO Stephen Duckett, a controversial character, to Dr. Chris Eagle, the new president. "It's time to properly put it to bed in a non-political way," Noseworthy said.
"That's the only way we're ever going to clear the air, and we have to clear the air soon because it's having a detrimental effect on Alberta Health Services. It's kind of guilt by association, and it's kind of not fair."
Many of the cases brought forward by the Alberta Liberals are 10 years old and involve former health au-thorities, he said.
Alberta's new health authority -and the existing political establishment -aren't at fault for previous actions, Noseworthy said.
But the allegations still need investigation.
"I personally believe the government should distance themselves from this and see to it that the public get the facts and clear understanding" by calling a judicial inquiry, Noseworthy said.
He doesn't believe the government has anything to hide, despite the claims of opposition parties.
"They can blame the government if they want, but it was a former government. And they can blame AHS but that's illogical and unfair. . Can we put a lid on this and close it and do a proper post-mortem that is nonpolitical and once and for all clears the air so Alberta Health Services can get on with its business?"
Heather Forsyth, health critic for the Wildrose Alliance, thinks a public inquiry will definitely be called by whomever succeeds Stelmach.
"They will call a public inquiry, I have no doubt," Forsyth said.
Health care will remain a priority, Mensah said.
"This is likely to define the premiership of whoever takes over the Conservative party," he said.
It will also define the Liberal leadership race, but whoever succeeds Swann must broaden the focus, Mensah said.
"David Swann has really taken this issue to heart and has focused singularly on it for a long time," he said.
"I think the next leader has to take a much more comprehensive approach. I think Raj Sherman, for all his positive attributes, would be associated with the health-care issue."
NDP Leader Brian Mason said while the Liberals weren't wrong in their approach to hammer the government, Swann squandered opportunities to talk about other things besides health.
"At a certain point, you've said all you can say on a topic and it's time to move on," Mason said.
Swann didn't apologize for pushing hard on health.
"We are still in a deeply troubled system," said Swann, whose is determined to rebuild accountability in government and health.
The Alberta Liberals are planning to launch a provincewide petition this summer to gather signatures of Albertans who want the government to call for a public inquiry.
David Eggen, executive director of Friends of Medicare, said there is public appetite to keep the fire burning, even though he believes Swann allowed the debate to be reduced to stories of individual doctors with individual beefs rather than the broader fact that Alberta's health system simply doesn't have the capacity to care for everyone who needs it.
"It's up to the various leadership candidates to carry this torch and clear their position on a public inquiry or not," Eggen said.
Tory leadership hopeful Doug Griffiths has voiced his support for a public inquiry. Doug Horner and newcomer Rick Worman both say an inquiry will be needed if more proof of doctor intimidation shows up.
Alison Redford has said she believes the Health Quality Council should be the body conducting a public inquiry. Ted Morton has remained silent on the issue, while Gary Mar has said he believes the health council and the police can deal with concerns.
"Health care will be the front and centre through these leadership contests," Eggen said.
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??The major business of this spring session -one of the shortest ever -included the passing of various bills, including: ??Bill 1: The Asia advisory council act allows the government to establish a council on how best to tap trade and business opportunities in the growing region.
- Bill 2: This bill strengthens protection for victims of family violence and holds accountable those who violate protection orders.
- Bill 8: The missing persons act allows police to get personal information on missing people, even if there is no reason to suspect a crime. This can help speed up a search.
- Bill 10: The land stewardship amendment act did little to quell concerns of the opposition parties that the rights of land owners wouldn't be stomped on as the government plans for future population and development needs.
- Bill 20: An amendment to the workers' compensation act gives 10,000 volunteer, part-time and casual firefighters in Alberta who suffer from work-related cancer the same benefits as full-time firefighters.
-Notably not passed:
- Bill 18: The new education act is highly controversial and therefore needs more time for government. The bill would raise the high school dropout age to 17 from 16, give schools the power to expel bullies, even if the bullying happens outside school hallways or on the Internet, and gives more power to school boards, including decisions to close schools, set the school calendar and dismiss trustees who breach new codes of conduct that will be required.
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