Brian Jean vows to lead Alberta back into the health care wilderness where we wandered with Ralph Klein

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PHOTOS: Calgary General Hospital at the moment it was blown to smithereens in October 1998 by Ralph Klein’s conservative government (Photo: City of Calgary). Below: Outgoing Wildrose leader and United Conservative Party leadership candidate Brian Jean, former Alberta Health Services CEO Vickie Kaminski and current AHS CEO Verna Yiu.

Outgoing Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who is campaigning to lead the province’s far-right Frankenparty, has vowed to lead Albertans back into the health care wilderness where they wandered with Ralph Klein a generation ago.

Alberta is still recovering from that misadventure.

Roughly one half of all Alberta hospital beds were closed during the worst years of Conservative premier Klein’s health care “reform,” between the end of 1992 and 1995. Very few of these beds ever reopened, even though the province’s population has doubled since that health care disaster.

The impact is well understood: years of chronic Emergency Room waits, crumbling infrastructure, stratospheric replacement costs, and now a looming staffing crisis as the Baby Boom generation of health care professionals prepares to retire without the experienced replacements who were driven out of the province by Mr. Klein’s destructive and ultimately ineffective policies.

Nevertheless, in introducing his platform to lead the so-called United Conservative Party, Mr. Jean pledged to make $2.6 billion in instant cuts to Alberta’s public sector by freezing salaries, leaving the jobs done by retiring caregivers and other public employees unfilled, and firing managers, many of whom are in fact front-line heath care workers.

According to Mr. Jean, this is supposed to take place throughout the public sector, but in case you doubted his intent with regard to health care, he singled out Alberta Health Services for special mention in his plans. Remember as well that even if he fired the entire provincial civil service, basically unchanged in size since Statistics Canada compiled these numbers in 2011, he would barely save enough money to keep his promise. So health care inevitably would be a significant target.

Mr. Jean would compound the damage by cutting the government’s revenue base and attacking the rights of working people, other typical discredited economic nostrums of the Republicanized Canadian political right. In addition, of course, there would be more cuts later. Typical of conservative politicians, though, Mr. Jean omitted the details.

This is a man who just days ago was telling a tame Postmedia columnist that “gone are the days when hard-right governments are going to be successful in Alberta.” Well, forget about that! Apparently Mr. Jean got a message from the UCP’s Tea Party base, from his cynical campaign advisors, or both.

Either that, or, worse, he really is the “moderate” in this race. Candidate Doug Schweitzer excoriated Mr. Jean for not going far enough, as has UCP Finance Critic Derek Fildebrandt.

Mr. Fildebrandt, at least, has promised to say precisely where he would make cuts. This may sound like a virtue, but more likely it’s a shrewd calculation that his supporters actually enjoy the prospect of hurting their neighbours, especially those with public sector jobs.

Outgoing Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney, who will announce his candidacy soon, has lately kept quiet about his plans – although he has vowed in the past to repeal every single piece of legislation passed by Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government, including, presumably, those required by Supreme Court rulings.

If you’re looking for some reasonably balanced thoughts about the money spent on administration in Alberta health care, look no farther than the last two chief executives of Alberta Health Services.

In a letter to the editor of the Edmonton Sun in February 2015, then-CEO Vickie Kaminski, a conservative appointee, pointed out, accurately, that when it comes to directing spending to front-line care instead of administration, no province does better than Alberta.

“Managers only make up three per cent of our AHS workforce,” Ms. Kaminski said in response to a misinformed column by a right-wing Sun columnist. “That includes the lowest-level manager right up to the executive leadership team, including the President and CEO.” She based her arguments on statistics from the respected Canadian Institute for Health Information.

A letter to the Edmonton Journal from Ms. Kaminiski’s permanentv replacement, Dr. Verna Yiu, made the same points in April 2016 in response to another volley of right-wing misrepresentations about the cost of administration at AHS.

As an aside, it seems ham handed for AHS’s communications staff to have used almost identical words in both letters, although the facts had not changed between the two. As is often said in this space, you’re not really plagiarizing if you’re plagiarizing yourself. Just the same, someone should have made the effort to produce a different letter for Dr. Yiu, or to acknowledge that the same points had been made by her predecessor.

Unstated by either Ms. Kaminski or Dr. Yiu, though, was the fact many lower-level AHS managers do in fact deliver front-line health care, and cuts in those “administrative” ranks will directly and negatively impact the level of care that patients receive from front-line nurses and health care aides.

Regardless, while facts may not count for much in the post-truth environment of the UCP, they should nevertheless be part of the general provincial discussion about what the cuts proposed by Mr. Jean and his cohorts would mean for health care in Alberta.

The brutal cuts proposed by Mr. Jean would mean the same thing as the brutal cuts imposed by Mr. Klein in the 1990s: Worse health outcomes, longer wait times, crammed Emergency Rooms, closed rural and urban facilities, demoralized health care professionals, another lost generation of nurses who take their skills to greener pastures, and a general collapse into the general dysfunction from which we are only now recovering.

Moreover, over the long term, fixing the damage done would cost more than continuing to run the system with a steady hand.

These dystopic outcomes, of course, would be used to justify calls for a more expensive, less fair system of privatized health care – which may, of course, be the whole idea.

Categories Alberta Politics