The Wildrose Party has reignited the debate over two-tiered medicine in the province, embracing private health care for certain procedures as a way to alleviate long waiting times.
The party, which has soared into the lead in multiple polls, promised to allow patients the right to use private clinics – inside or outside the province – on the public dime if they have to wait longer than a set time for procedures, from cancer and cardiac care to diagnostic imaging and orthopedic surgery as well as cataract removal.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said it would cost an estimated $180-million a year to implement.
Private health care has always been controversial topic in Alberta, but private clinics have long performed some procedures for patients who are referred to them, which are paid from the public purse. A proposal from former premier Ralph Klein to use more private-health operators to ease backlogs in the public system sparked a heated debate, and was ultimately shelved.
"The zombies of private-health insurance keep coming back," said Avalon Roberts, an Alberta board member of Friends of Medicare. "The public health-care system should be improved. There will always be people trying to bring it down."
The Wildrose election promise, which would cost an estimated $180-million a year, is based on benchmarks set by the Canadian Wait Times Alliance, a coalition of health-care providers, for 10 medical procedures. Patients who haven't received treatment when the benchmark is reached could seek out a clinic and physician to treat them and the province would pay, but only as much as it would cost in Alberta's public system. Anything over that price would have to come from the patient's pocket.
"It means an end to Albertans languishing too long in health-care queues," Ms. Smith said. "… It means our public-health system will be strengthened by introducing choice and competition."
Friends of Medicare said the plan would create a two-tiered system that benefits only the rich, while the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said it would drive doctors and nurses into a parallel private system, exacerbating the waiting-times problem.
Alberta Medical Association president Linda Slocombe said the system should be using the facilities in place, but surgeons can't get operating rooms.
"We have unused ORs due to lack of funding," she said.
Ms. Smith said the proposal is "innovative, practical and affordable" and would come with a protection of the public-health-care guarantee. She said it would not violate the principles of the Canada Health Act and actually "strengthen and protect" the country's health-care system. Extra billing would not be permitted, she said.
Meanwhile, Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford floated the idea of "fast track" emergency room care for "easily identifiable" ailments such as broken bones or burns.
She said it would bypass the current "extended triage process" and direct simpler cases to care more quickly.
"It's not about more money, but it's about doing things differently," she said.
The proposal could cost up to $2.5-million to renovate the province's major hospitals.
Critics said the Tories are proposing a strategy that's already in place and hasn't alleviated backlogs.
The duelling health-care announcements both used the $1.3-billion South Health Campus, a new but unfinished hospital in Calgary, as a backdrop.
Ms. Smith described the facility as an example of wasteful spending and a museum rather than a functioning hospital. It's been years since ground was broken under former premier Ralph Klein, and there have been concerns about lack of staff.
Ms. Redford called it an example of much-needed infrastructure that will add capacity in the health-care system to help relieve bottlenecks. She said it is on time and under budget, and is expected to open this summer.
This week, the Canadian Institute for Health Information released a study on hospital performance that found that, while waiting times in Alberta were better than in most provinces, they fell behind the national average in some areas, such as cataract surgery.
Earlier this year, the independent Health Quality Council of Alberta found emergency room care had unacceptably long waiting times due to both a shortage of beds and long in-patient stays.
Paul Parks, the AMA's past-president for emergency medicine, said his organization told the provincial health minister in a December letter that lack of acute-care beds and long-term-care facilities was the crux of the problem. In that letter, the AMA suggested the government abandon any fast-track proposal.
"We're baffled and honestly shocked at this announcement," Dr. Parks said.
"Every major emergency department within Alberta, and I would say across Canada, already have fast tracks," he added.
In a news release, Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, a former emergency-room doctor, sarcastically called the Tory plan a "fantastic idea."
"Why didn't we think of it earlier? We need to come up with a name for this. Why don't we call it triage?"