Alberta Politics
Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital (Photo: Ian Stumpf, Creative Commons).

Thanks to a public-spirited leaker, a risky health-care privatization scheme is exposed

Posted on August 11, 2020, 1:32 am
6 mins

Panicky sounding United Conservative Party “issues managers” were frantically insisting yesterday everything is copacetic and above board with secret plans to build a $200-million private orthopedic surgical hospital in Edmonton.

No way will this result in two-tier health care, they contended, often shrilly calling anyone who suggested otherwise a liar, even as the number of voices saying the opposite grew.

Lobbyist Elan MacDonald (Photo: Atlas Growers).

But the surprise revelation of a backroom privatization scheme hatched by high-priced corporate lobbyists and big donors to Conservative causes, complete with private access to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, apparent pre-approval by the minister, and an expensive poison-pill contract provision to make sure future governments don’t tear up the deal, sure doesn’t inspire confidence.

The backstory dates to June, when Elan MacDonald, nowadays a politically well connected lobbyist and not so long a ago a senior advisor to Progressive Conservative premiers Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford, made three presentations to groups of orthopedic surgeons from the Edmonton area.

The proposal would see the for-profit hospital perform all non-emergency orthopedic surgical procedures in Alberta’s Capital Region, as many as 10,000 operations each year, under contract to the government.

But most of the region’s orthopedic surgeons need to be on board for this idea to have legs. Apparently at least one of them wasn’t.

At any rate, someone made a recording of one of Ms. MacDonald’s presentations and sent it to CBC Edmonton’s two investigative reporters, Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell. They published their scoop yesterday morning. By yesterday afternoon, other media were filing follows.

A story that leaks before the talking points and spin are all agreed upon, and the message boxes memorized by even the slowest-witted MLA, is the kind of nightmare that keeps political issues managers up late.

Alas for the UCP, the party’s issues managers appear not to have managed this issue at all!

Journalist Jennie Russell (Photo: CBC).

Now the CBC’s interpretation — that well-connected elites with insider access cooked up a deal in secret that wasn’t in the public interest, motivated only by stubborn determination to put ideology ahead of evidence, and for which there is no accountability or transparency — will be hard to change.

If it had been further along and the surgeons had announced it, media would’ve said Wow, sounds great,” whinged Mr. Shandro’s press secretary, Steve Buick, in an unintentionally damning assessment of the way most Alberta media can be depended upon to fall for UCP talking points, no matter how lame.

Had it not been for the anonymous but public-spirited leaker, what Mr. Buick described is likely exactly what would have happened.

Journalist Charles Rusnell (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Calling people who say otherwise liars, accusing opponents of being NDP plants or trying to boost union membership, and yapping about “fearmongering from the mediscare crowd” isn’t going to help very much, though.

Meanwhile, as yet unanswered is the question of why the Royal Alexandra Foundation, which fund-raises for the large public hospital adjacent to the site that is being considered for the proposed private orthopedic hospital, is involved in any way with this deal.

The foundation is supposed to support the Royal Alex and what it calls the hospital’s No. 1 Priority: “building better health care.”

But many donors, surely most of them, give the foundation their money to build a better public health care system, not to undermine it.

The thought the foundation had some kind of notion it could raise money for its charitable projects by collecting revenue from a plan that would damage our public health care system is not very reassuring.

Health Ministry Press Secretary Steve Buick (Photo: CBC).

Obviously, the Royal Alexandra Foundation has some ’splainin’ to do.

Meanwhile, it’s helpful to remember that Alberta has been here and done this before. In 2010, a private, for-profit orthopedic hospital in Calgary located in a facility that once was a public hospital specializing in women’s health care went broke.

The Health Resource Centre, wrote longtime Alberta journalist Gillian Steward at the time, “was once the focal point of premier Ralph Klein’s health-care strategies.”

The Klein Government even passed special legislation to let private surgical clinics keep patients overnight.

“No one imagined a scenario in which publicly funded Alberta Health Services would go to court in a bid to keep the lights on over the operating tables in an investor-owned hospital,” she wrote. “No one imagined that AHS would be paying receivership fees in order to keep the doors open. But this is, in fact, what has happened because Calgary’s public health-care system is so reliant on private partners.”

Well, it’s easy to imagine now.

Just the same, the Kenney Government would like to repeat this failed experiment all over again.

21 Comments to: Thanks to a public-spirited leaker, a risky health-care privatization scheme is exposed

  1. Just Me

    August 11th, 2020

    The UCP has “issues managers” up the ying-yang, all for a cool 250K per annum each, and they can’t get their heads out of their collective arses long enough to actually do their jobs?

    This isn’t a government; this is a Monty Python sketch.

    Meanwhile, a Red Deer family physician was bludgeoned to death.

    While the circumstances of the incident have yet to be determined, I am ready to drop the blame on top of Shandro.

    Thanks to Shandro’s endless crazy rants, coming out of his M&Ms filled festering gob, his crazed spew anti-doctor verbal diarrhoea just set someone off their bean cart.

    If Shandro doesn’t walk out right now, I declare that the body count will rise.

    So much for Alberta’s peaceful kingdom.

    Reply
    • anoninRD

      August 11th, 2020

      Actually you may be much closer to the truth than you suspect. The accused was a regular at the downtown public library where he regularly used the internet connections. I’m told by staff that many (but not all) of the people using that service at that location were street people, usually mentally ill and often drug users. Kenney and Shandro have been fanning the flames of hatred and envy against doctors almost from day one. So I would not be surprised if there is a causal connection. But in this single-party dictatorship I doubt the connection will ever be established.

      Reply
  2. Dave

    August 11th, 2020

    Well, I will start by saying something nice – it will probably be a nice building or at least a bit nicer than the car dealership on the site. However, after that comes many concerns and questions about the cozy relationships, conflicts and problems here.

    Yes, it will probably be a good deal for the new and used car dealer who I believe now owns the lot – they don’t call the UCP the Used Car Party for nothing. For some reason, they do seem to have a generous spot in their otherwise stingy hearts for used car dealers. Just how this building will be paid for is a good question. I suspect the answer ultimately involves public money funneled into a private company through a generous sweetheart deal.

    Now, the biggest problem in Alberta Heathcare isn’t buidings these days, it is filling them. With about 40% or more of doctors considering leaving Alberta because they have been so badly treated by our government, the real question is who will fill this nice new building? Now perhaps the Alberta government hasn’t abused orthopedic surgeons as much as other physicians, but I doubt there will be a great influx of them while most other physicians are going the other way. So, in the end the surgeons who staff this new facility will probably come mostly from other existing facilities, like the one next door, and we will end up no further ahead. A nice shell game though with a nice new building to distract us all.

    I also have to wonder about the Hospital Foundation’s role in this. Funneling money to a private facility probably violates the rules for charitable organizations. By the way, those are Federal not Provincial rules.

    I suppose this might give the UCP a bit of a reprieve from the view that all doctors hate them, apparently a few percent don’t. However, I think the conflicts of interest and other problems here will cause this all to unravel sooner or later. Perhaps more so, because this wasn’t fully baked before it became public.

    This leads once again to the conclusion the UCP is more interested in creating diversions rather than real solutions to our health care problems.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    August 11th, 2020

    Well, as the old saying goes, those who fail to remember history, will be doomed to repeat it. This is exactly the same type of thing that Ralph Klein wanted to pursue. It is neoliberal policies at their finest. It is exactly what happens when the publicly funded health care system is given cuts, and this pushes the “need” for private for profit health care in Alberta. The UCP obviously has an agenda, and it’s going in a direction that any sensible person would not take. England is a classic example as to why a mixed public and private health care system is a failure. Are Albertans going to ever wake up and realize what a big mess the UCP is inflicting upon Alberta? Imagine if a federal election were on the horizon, (as we know that minority governments are unstable), and the UCP pulled this on Albertans. Canadians would get wind of this in a heartbeat, and the CPC would most certainly get defeated, regardless of how much belly aching would come from Albertans. Like I said, those who fail to remember history, will be doomed to repeat it. This goes back to Ralph Klein trying to look into private for profit health care options in Alberta, before a federal election, thereby causing the CPC to be defeated. We only need to turn our eyes to America, and see how people are broke because they can’t afford health care. Private for profit health care is not a solution, and neither is a mixed public and private health care system. The UCP is the worst government in Alberta, and they are even making Ralph Klein, (who was an utter failure), look good. I don’t think Albertans fully understood what they were getting themselves into, when they supported the UCP.

    Reply
  4. Expat Albertan

    August 11th, 2020

    Wow, who would have thought that a member of a profession maligned by its government and virtually chased out of the province might try to get revenge against said government.

    Reply
  5. Abs

    August 11th, 2020

    Can we talk about the car dealership angle to this, and how to an ordinary person, from what we have heard so far, it seems patients will be treated like so many used cars? And how doctors and surgeons at the dealership will be working for the sales manager, not a doctor?

    When Angus McBeath was talking about turning the next generation of Alberta’s young people into honest used car salesmen, did he mean training them to be doctors?

    Reply
  6. Bob Raynard

    August 11th, 2020

    What I find most concerning about all of this is the clause in the proposal that:

    “Alberta Health Services (AHS) that will ensure the private facility is economically viable and also make it prohibitively expensive for a future government to shut it down;”

    I can see how investors would be reluctant to put millions of dollars into a project like this if a future government decides it wants to get out of it, but at the same time it feels like such a clause would give the corporation a blank cheque to gouge the Alberta taxpayers. Since no one can predict what inflation is going to do, I expect the contract would include something like ‘payments to be negotiated on an annual basis’. How can the government negotiate if the company has a ‘guaranteed economically viable’ clause? Could the new Bones R Us company just set a price for a procedure and the government would have to pay it? If the privatized clinic does indeed give the efficiencies its proponents would like us to believe, why does it even need this clause?

    I am not a socialist; I love the freedom to choose the merchant I want when I buy a car or need a plumber, and I really enjoy the satisfaction of not supporting a business that has left me dissatisfied in the past. Indeed, it is the fear of my dissatisfied reaction that forces the business to be efficient and produce innovative ideas. This is how capitalism works.

    With a guaranteed economically viable clause, however, this advantage is lost entirely. Neither me nor the government can look elsewhere. The result is all of the inefficiencies that conservatives lament about government workers, with the need to pay a dividend to the shareholders as well.

    Reply
    • Murphy

      August 12th, 2020

      That’s how capitalism works, is it? So no need for the billions and billions spent on advertising using manipulative techniques that derive from Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann’s propaganda programs, which themselves came right out of Freud’s work on human psychology? I love your plumber reference. When I have a flooded toilet, I peruse the hundreds of plumbers available in my city, check the cut of their various jibs, and then after extensive analyis of their bodies of work, I pick the very best! We’re fifty years into post-industrialism in North America, a development in which GM became a bank, and you’re babbling about freedom to choose a merchant. Can there really still be people who are dim enough to spout that “better mousetrap” garbage, or are you being facetious? I love the freedom to choose between Coke and Pepsi while billionaire oligarchs rule the globe!

      Reply
    • jerrymacgp

      August 13th, 2020

      Competition & the private market work fine for consumer products & services, like cars, TVs, & yard services. But the key is that the consumer is knowledgeable enough to decide between one vendor and another, has the time to properly research their options, and has the freedom to just walk away and buy nothing.

      Health care doesn’t work like that. Patients don’t know enough to research their care options; they often don’t have the time to do so — ever have your furnace fail in the middle of the night or on a weekend in the dead of winter? you’d pay anything if you can just get someone to send a service tech before your pipes freeze — and they don’t have the option not to be care. So market forces don’t work in health care, other than to make investors richer and patients sicker and poorer.

      We need to keep profit-seeking private investment out of our health care system, period, full stop.

      Reply
  7. Bret Larson

    August 11th, 2020

    I love your headlines. “THANKS TO A PUBLIC-SPIRITED LEAKER”.

    Here let me try, “NDP spirited union mole leaks plan to provide health care services in a cost effective manner”.

    Looking for ways to afford health care into the future should be a priority for governments. Good thing the UCP is looking at all alternatives.

    Reply
    • Rocky

      August 11th, 2020

      Farmer Brian? Is that you? Have you changed your identity?

      Reply
      • Bret larson

        August 11th, 2020

        Sounds like a nice guy, and kudos on the first letter.

        Reply
    • CrisisinSK

      August 11th, 2020

      Well Bret L I take it you took the same analytical position when the NDP were in power and getting abused by a conservative biased press. Please explain how privatised health care can be delivered more cost effectively given inflated doctors’ salaries, share holder dividends, private health’s cosy relationship with insurers, and the inevitable tax breaks issued to stimulate an economically unviable business (at least AB is good at that). As someone who is against socialism it is strange that you support socialism for the rich.

      Reply
      • Bret Larson

        August 12th, 2020

        “conservative biased press” Thanks I needed the laugh. I mean, the CBC is bought and paid for by the Liberals. And currently CBC Edmonton is of the opinion that a vote for the NDP is a vote for the Liberals, and who can blame them. The NDP is keeping the Liberals in power.

        That said, you bring up a good point. Public healthcare affordability should be in everybodys interests. There are two main strategies to provide services. One is a public system and the other would be a private system where service providers compete for business based on price. There are benefits and drawbacks of each system, and it seems a mixture of the two is perhaps required based on the collapse of government carbon funds.

        In Alberta we are in a situation where past governments paid for government workers and public health care workers at a rate they thought they might be able to afford in the future. That future has come and it cant be afforded.

        Added to that, you have scope creep about the extent of public healthcare coverage, a demographic shift of ratios between working and “retired” and now the pandemic, its past time when the discussion needs to take place.

        Like every correction, there is going to be some pain. We will have to pick and choose services to cover/ scope of public healthcare and what needs to be placed outside.

        I actually had this discussion with Linda Duncan on election day in 2014. We talked for about an hour, however, she never brought it up after she got in. Too busy worrying about banning weapons.

        Reply
  8. Mike in Edmonton

    August 11th, 2020

    Yep, that’s Lord Jason and Tyler the Jester. “Forward to the past!” Sounds better than, “Arse-first into the future!”

    Amazing how the later comments on the CBC post–GREAT story, and we needed to see it–are all from RepubilCon apologists trying to spin it as a “done deal.”

    Sure, Shandro hadn’t “approved” it. In public. Openly. Officially. Tyler the Jester just handed the file to a minion and said, “Get this done.”

    In fairness–not that I WANT to be–this is exactly how it works with any governing party. Whoever’s in power is deluged with proposals, deals, demands, “win-wins” and any other term for “This is a great deal for me–I meant you AND me. And you.”

    The worst aspects are 1) the extremely cosy relations among business and ex-politicians. Bill 30–the health-care privatization bill–wasn’t even approved when these guys were making deals with the Kenney Klowns. Insider trading is nominally illegal for businesses, but it sure is common in politics. 2) top-down decision making from the minister’s office. (You don’t really believe the decision hasn’t been made, do you?) AHS will be cut out of the loop–that’s a big part of Bill 30. The Minister of Health can bypass AHS to make deals on the side. They’re saying AHS asked for proposals. Might even be true. But when you can deal directly with the minister–who needs AHS?

    Our host, DJC, raised a point I’d missed. What’s this about the RAH having a fund-raising foundation that has a corporate spinoff that’s looking for investment opportunities in private health? “Only in Oilberduh”? Lord, we can only hope.

    Reply
  9. John K

    August 11th, 2020

    Investing $200 million to expand the existing public Orthopedic Surgery Centre which sits right next door would be the non-ideological solution. But this would not fit with the UCP’s corporatization agenda, nor its attempts to undermine the Alberta Medical Association by creating profit centres for high flying orthopedic surgeons.

    Reply
  10. pogo

    August 11th, 2020

    The roll back the odometer party? Why not? Failing twice could equal a health care system perfectly aligned to our orphaned well strategy? Excellent! Let’s go for it! I’ll be the next Prime Minister! The Jasons as they wish they were! https://youtu.be/EPcQ4KwEm2c

    Reply
  11. David Bridger

    August 11th, 2020

    Once again it comes down to corporate donors expecting a payback for their donations.
    And the UCP is happy to oblige them.

    Why mess with the lowest cost though not cheap health system in north America? Ideology.

    There is no magic in any ideology whether left or right. It comes down to effective management. If you have that, good. If not expect trouble.

    Health care effectiveness should be the priority, not ideology.

    Reply
  12. Abs

    August 11th, 2020

    When I heard a proponent of this plan explaining it on CBC radio, he said a patient might be referred to a surgeon for a shoulder problem, but maybe the patient had a back problem, so they would take the patient across the hall to deal with that. Just like a used car. One thing leads to another. In one door and out the other. It almost seems like they’re being very open about queue-jumping for their customers — I mean patients. No re-referral, no wait, like a 15-minute oil change.

    Reply
  13. Murphy

    August 12th, 2020

    I really have to question the notion that Grifter/Yokel policy is based on “ideology”. These vermin are place-holders in a system that is run to keep plutocrats in the style to which they have become accustomed. It’s as simple as rich people owning this gang of imbeciles and using them to their own ends. Ideology is just the sales pitch used to keep the yokels and aspiring grifters in line when it’s time for the rubber stamp of a “mandate” from the electorate. The Alberta Government is nothing more than a money funnel for the rich. War is the health of the state, and the state is in tip-top condition, with the Used Car Peddlars tearing phone books in half and blowing in hot water bottles until they burst.

    Reply
  14. Larry Medinski

    August 12th, 2020

    Excellent article, hopefully will open the eyes of hundreds of thousands of Albertans who may not clearly see the game plan of this corrupt, authoritarian, self indulgent band of misfits, known as kenney and the ucp. If true “a fish rots from the head down” then the blame for this exercise in deception, under the guise of good for all Albertans, may hang over this ucp leader and party as would the odor associated with rotting fish. Thanks to the public-spirited individual for providing this critical information which will hopefully lead to action to prevent for profit health care becoming established in our province once and for all.

    Reply

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