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Why the UCP’s health-care privatization plans will fail

The health-care horn’s been blowin’ hard since the writ was dropped March 19, and it’s no surprise; Alberta’s political parties know health care is a topic that

Apr 11, 2019

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But the vision of one party vying for the vote - the United Conservative Party - has stood out as the one to make the most drastic, and potentially dangerous changes to our health-care system. The party’s drive to expand privatization and introduce more American-style care is no secret. But this two-tiered system, where those with the means can purchase their way to the front of the line, has many Albertans concerned and rightfully so.

The UCP’s for-profit policy push is done under the guise of improving efficiencies, saving money, boosting quality care and reducing surgery wait times. However, allowing more private operators to ooze into our public system could do the exact opposite.

Less efficient

As the Canadian Doctors for Medicare, for-profit systems often reduce access to care by taking health-care professionals out of the public system, resulting in longer wait times. Moreover, with profit motive being the guiding light of private clinics, the ordering of unnecessary procedures, like MRIs and arthroscopic surgeries, goes up and leaves others who require those procedures with less access to them.

Higher costs

Private health care results in higher costs to Alberta taxpayers on two fronts: first, with public dollars allocated to fund the private system and second, when we pay additional fees for private services. Furthermore, costs to government also increase, as the Canadian Institute for Health Information reports in 2017, Alberta’s expenditures spent on administration in private health care were five times higher than in the public sector.

Quality care suffers (lab-tested proof)

Quality care doesn’t improve under the private model either. Take acute hospital laboratory services for example, an area the UCP has targeted for privatization in Edmonton.

When the threat of privatizing this service reared its head again a few years ago under the Progressive Conservative government, experts spoke out in opposition. A letter from 16 University of Alberta Hospital pathologists highlighted the negative impact privatization would have on patient care. The doctors underlined issues around quality and speed of test results, need for experienced staff, research integrity, workload and the medical reporting structure.

Front-line experts and AUPE members also pushed back, setting up an online and on-the-ground campaign called Keep Labs Public, which urged politicians to have acute hospital lab services in Edmonton remain in the public sector.

More than 10,000 letters to politicians were signed, about 80 per cent from the general public, and went to then health minister Fred Horne, all Alberta MLAs, Alberta Health Services and the NDP opposition.

The privatizing of rapid-response labs in the capital city was attempted in the mid-1990s as well, but failed after nearly a decade of issues with delayed service, mixed-up test results and the contractor’s inability to keep up with changing technology. Those labs were brought back into the public sector in 2006.

The combination of expert feedback and historical evidence, which highlighted the failure of privatized labs in Edmonton, were two main reasons the NDP cancelled privatization plans early on in its term.

Quality care suffers (keep it clean)

Hospital laundry is another critical public health-care service in the crosshairs of the UCP. Party leader Jason Kenney is on record saying if his party forms government, he will further privatize laundry services in Alberta.

The horror stories of for-profits performing laundry services are disturbing. As reported in the Regina Leader-Post, hospital linen “cleaned” by for-profit company K-Bro Linen Systems Inc., which has operations in Alberta, contained needles, syringes, surgical instruments and other sharp objects within them, raising serious safety concerns at hospitals across Saskatchewan.

A former laundry worker and member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in Prince Albert told the union that they “had systems in place to make sure any instruments, needles, equipment, and biological materials were removed before the washing process. Linen was also inspected after cleaning and before it was shipped back to health facilities.”

Checks and balances like this often fall by the wayside when profit trumps quality. Unfortunately these shortcuts can put the public’s health at serious risk.

Surgery wait times

Mr. Kenney has also invited third-party private providers to bid on the public system in an attempt to reduce surgery wait times, modeled after the failed Saskatchewan Surgery Initiative.

This saw the Saskatchewan government toss $176-million at the initiative from 2010 until 2014, and another $60.5 million in 2015, in an effort fund more surgeries under the private system, yet it did little to reduce wait times, in fact they increased.

The initiative was ended by the Saskatchewan government in 2014 as a result of its inability to keep up with cost increases as demand for services rose.

It’s clear the rationale in the UCP’s privatization plans for health care do not rest in historical fact or evidence from experts, but in an ideology that would see health-care corporations profit off the needs of Albertans.

Regardless of the outcome of our provincial election, members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees will continue to defend and fight for universal health care, so quality care is available to every Albertan, regardless of what’s in their bank account.

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