Alberta government must fundamentally reform health care to shorten wait times

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, February 8, 2024
Alberta government must fundamentally reform health care to shorten wait times

The polling data is clear—while a majority of Albertans consider health care to be a top issue, 58 per cent disapprove of the government’s job in handling the file. While the Smith government has promised health-care reform, Albertans want to see action.

Alberta’s health-care system has suffered from family physician shortages, low system capacity and dismal worker morale, and of course, long waits. How long? The answer depends on what stage of care a patient resides because there are two distinct waits for non-emergency surgery. First, there’s the wait between seeing a general practitioner and seeing a specialist. Then there’s the wait to receive treatment by the specialist.

According to a study published in 2023, Albertans could expect to wait 16.4 weeks for the first wait and 17.2 weeks for the second, for a total wait of 33.5 weeks, the longest wait in the country (outside most of Atlantic Canada) and more than three times longer than the 10.5 weeks Albertans waited in 1993 when wait times were first measured. And this total median wait time doesn’t even include the wait to see a general practitioner in the first place, in a province where many people don’t have a family physician.

Clearly, the system needs fixing. But the problem isn’t funding. In fact, health-care spending in Alberta has increased significantly over the past few decades and accounts for more than 40 per cent of all provincial program spending in 2023/24. Alberta’s also a high spender compared to other provinces. In 2021, the latest year of available data, Alberta ranked second-highest for health-care spending per person after adjusting for differences between the provinces in average age and in the male-female split, which both affect health-care spending. So, throwing money at the problem (the federal government recently committed a $1.1. billion health-care “top up” for Alberta) won’t solve the problem.

For effective change, Alberta’s health-care system needs fundamental reform.

For instance, policymakers could learn from more successful universal heath-care countries and replace the current funding model for hospitals (where hospitals receive a set budget each year, regardless of the level of services and care provided) with an “activity-based funding” model where the government pays hospitals for actual services provided. This model incentivizes hospitals to provide more care for more patients rather than seeing patients as costs to be minimized. Many universal health-care countries including Australia, Switzerland and Germany, which all tend to outperform Canada on key health-care measures (including the share of the population receiving timely medical care) use this type of funding model for hospitals.

Alberta patients continue to endure unacceptably long waits despite a heavy price tag to run the provincial health-care system. Unfortunately, without fundamental reform, Alberta patients and their families will continue to endure these long waits with no end in sight.

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