Kenney government should reform health care to shorten wait times and save money

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, January 8, 2020
Kenney government should reform health care to shorten wait times and save money

On the campaign trail and since taking office, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has promised to put provincial finances back on solid ground. Given the scale of this challenge, it’s hard to envision how Premier Kenney can keep this promise without cost-saving reforms to health care, which currently consumes approximately 40 per cent of the provincial budget.

To that end, the province has commissioned a report by the consulting firm Ernst and Young, which should be published in the next few weeks, to propose a set of reforms that can simultaneously find savings while also reducing health-care wait times.

And there’s a compelling case that health-care reform in Alberta is long overdue. First, let’s look at costs. In 2019, Alberta spent significantly more per person on health care than any of the other large provinces—specifically, between 13 per cent and 22 per cent higher than British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. This despite the fact that all three of these other provinces have significantly older populations than Alberta, which places upward pressure on costs.

Moreover, Canada—as a country—is a big spender on health care compared to other economically-developed countries. As recently compiled data from Canada’s Institute for Health Information shows, in 2018 Canada was among the highest spenders on health care in the world—24 per cent higher than the average for the OECD (a group of the world’s most developed countries).

Sadly, there’s little or no evidence to suggest that all this spending translates into outstanding delivery of health-care services. For example, recent Fraser Institute research found that, in 2017, Canada was near the bottom or middle of the OECD pack for the availability of physicians, nurses and hospital beds.

Back in Alberta, there’s worrying evidence that the province’s big spending compared to other Canadian provinces may not be producing the desired outcomes. For example, according to recent research, health-care wait times are generally longer in Alberta than in the rest of Canada. In 2019, Albertans faced a median wait time of 28 weeks for treatment after a referral from a family doctor compared to a national average of 20.9 weeks.

In short, per-person health-care costs in Alberta are among the highest in the world, but the evidence suggests our health-care system is not commensurately excellent.

Premier Kenney’s government has committed to putting Alberta’s finances on a more sustainable footing. This is a big job; it won’t be easy. But it will likely be impossible without policy reforms that find savings in the health care system.

As such, the government is right to seek expert advice on how to get better value-for-money in health care. Hopefully the soon-to-be-released Ernst and Young report will present evidence-based strategies and reform options to simultaneously find savings and reduce wait times, and thus take steps towards the creation of a truly word-class health-care system in the province.

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