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Get ready for the health care battle

Nelson Chris web

When it comes to government budget cuts here in Alberta – and the inevitable protests that follow – we’ve only sampled the appetizer so far.

But rest assured the main course being cooked up in the various ministerial back rooms of the current Kenney government promises to be a hearty humdinger of a dish.

Because the main ingredient – heck, perhaps the only ingredient, given the size to the resulting entree – is none other than the behemoth that goes under the title of Alberta Health.

This is where the provincial government hopes the future balanced budgetary goose will be cooked and that any lingering bad taste will be long forgotten when the next election rolls around.

You see, there’s really not much of a choice other than to attempt getting to grips with spending on health, that’s if pledges of balancing the books by the end of this government’s mandate are to be realized.

After all, the dollars doled out are astronomical when you consider there’s fewer than 4.5 million of us generally hearty souls actually living in this province.

As a mind-boggling example, this budgetary year we’re expecting to spend $20.6 billion on health alone. That’s a whopping 43 per cent of the entire provincial budget.

So now Alberta’s entire medical system is facing yet another major shake-up, according to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, who’s expected to release a draft report later this month on what’s going to change.

Of course, the basis for this latest kick at the can of reinventing health care in our province will be based upon a report by Ernst & Young, which has been reviewing the operations of Alberta Health Services.

You’d think nobody employed in governmental departments has any clue whatsoever what’s actually going on, given politicians’ love of inviting all sorts of outsiders to take a look-see under the hood.

Last fall, another government-appointed panel led by former Saskatchewan health minister Janice MacKinnon had its own take on rising health care costs – announcing we’re often getting substandard service despite paying more per head than other similar jurisdictions in Canada.

Well, best of luck to Shandro. Because he’ll need it if he hopes to turn back the tide of relentlessly increasing costs for taxpayers in paying for our health care system.

The fight’s been going on for decades with the outcome rarely in doubt – the bill will just keep on rising.

Heck, you can go back as far as 1983 when the Lougheed government tried the tide-turning business. Then-health minister Dave Russell famously suggested introducing user fees on some hospital stays – $20-a-day if my memory serves me correctly. That went down like a lead balloon in Ottawa, which threatened withholding transfer payments because such levies were an assault on the Canada Health Act. The plan was shelved.

Twenty years later, it was Ralph Klein’s turn, coming up with some confusing bafflegab about a third way of funding health care, one involving public and private partnerships.

That too ended in failure. Back then, of course, the province was on a roll, thanks mainly to the revenues from spiking natural gas prices across the land. That’s certainly not the backdrop Shandro enjoys.

We’re more than $8 billion a year in the hole and hopes that rising provincial GDP will eventually close that gap appear less and less likely with the economy stuck in neutral.

So get ready for the health care battle. Doctors, nurses, unions and a bevy of protest groups covering the gamut of the hard done by are already preparing to march.

Pass the popcorn: this is going to be a doozy.

Chris Nelson is a long-time journalist. His columns on Alberta politics run monthly in the St. Albert Gazette.

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