Bureaucratic shuffle not enough to fix health care in Alberta

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Appeared in the Edmonton Sun, January 17, 2024
Bureaucratic shuffle not enough to fix health care in Alberta

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith spent a good portion of her yearend interviews discussing upcoming changes to the province’s health-care system including the shift from the single Alberta Health Services to multiple authorities each tasked with overseeing one area of the health-care system. But will the government pair this bureaucratic shuffle with reforms that will actually improve matters for Albertans?

Indeed, Albertans shouldn’t get too excited about reforms to the health-care system’s administrative structure. Back in 2008, Alberta Health Services replaced nine regional health boards, which themselves were amalgamated from 17 authorities created in 1994. Yet wait lists grew continuously over the entire period up to new record highs in 2023.

In 1993, a typical Albertan could expect to wait 10.5 weeks between GP referral and treatment by a medical specialist. By 2008, that wait time had increased to 18.5 weeks and now stands at a remarkable 33.5 weeks (longer than the national median wait of 27.7 weeks).

A lack of money is absolutely not to blame. On the contrary, Alberta’s provincial health-care spending ranked second-highest per person (after adjusting for age and sex) in 2021, while Canada nationally is a relatively high spender among universal health-care countries. At the same time, Canada ranks near the bottom for the availability of medical professionals, medical technologies and hospital resources. And Canadian patients suffer some of the longest delays for access to care in the developed world.

In other words, there’s much more wrong with health care in Alberta than the number of authorities overseeing the governmental system.

So what’s the solution?

Simply put, Alberta should learn from other countries that deliver more timely universal care with comparable spending such as Switzerland, Australia and Germany. For example, in 2020 (the latest year of available data) only 62 per cent of patients in Canada received elective care within four months compared to 72 per cent in Australia, 94 per cent in Switzerland and 99 per cent in Germany.

What do these countries do differently? They all have private competitive providers delivering universally accessible services within the public system, and payment for such care is based on actual delivery of services, known as “activity-based” funding.

Based on details released so far, the Smith government’s bureaucratic shuffle appears to bear little resemblance to these higher-performing approaches pursued abroad. In fact, it looks a lot like the provincial government working from the same old playbook, with another costly exercise to distract Albertans from the real problems in their health-care system. If that’s all this reform amounts to, then we can expect no real improvement for Albertans in need of care or the taxpayers who fund it.

On the bright side, there’s some hope that the Smith government is setting the stage for more meaningful reform. To move toward a higher-performing model with competitive patient-focused delivery, the government must first separate and clearly define the roles of the purchaser of health care and the providers of that care. If moving from one large health authority to multiple authorities is about more clearly defining government’s role as the purchaser and oversight authority for universal health care, with authorities and providers being transparently accountable for delivering timely quality care to patients, then Albertans may be on the road to shorter wait times and higher-quality health care.

But we’ll have to wait and see.

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