Policymakers in Ottawa and Edmonton maintain broken health-care system

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, May 8, 2024
Policymakers in Ottawa and Edmonton maintain broken health-care system

To say Albertans, and indeed all Canadians, are getting poor value for their health-care dollars is a gross understatement. In reality, Canada remains among the highest spenders on health care in the developed world, in exchange for one of the least accessible universal health-care systems. And while Canadians are increasingly open to meaningful reform, policymakers largely cling to their stale approach of more money, platitudes and little actual change.

In 2021 (the latest year of available data), among high-income universal health-care countries, Canada spent the highest share of its economy on health care (after adjusting for age differences between countries). For that world-class level of spending, Canada ranked 28th in the availability of physicians, 23rd in hospital beds, 25th in MRI scanners and 26th in CT scanners. And we ranked dead last on wait times for specialist care and non-emergency surgeries.

This abysmal performance has been consistent since at least the early 2000s with Canada regularly posting top-ranked spending alongside bottom-ranked performance in access to health-care.

On a provincial basis, Albertans are no better off. Alberta’s health-care system ranks as one of the most expensive in Canada on a per-person basis (after adjusting for population age and sex) while wait times in Alberta were 21 per cent longer than the national average in 2023.

And what are governments doing about our failing health-care system? Not much it seems, other than yet another multi-billion-dollar federal spending commitment (from the Trudeau government) and some bureaucratic shuffling (by the Smith government) paired with grandiose statements of how this will finally solve the health-care crisis.

But people aren’t buying it anymore. Canadians increasingly understand that more money for an already expensive and failing system is not the answer, and are increasingly open to reforms based on higher-performing universal health-care countries where the public system relies more on private firms and entrepreneurs to deliver publicly-funded services. Indeed, according to one recent poll, more than six in 10 Canadians agree that Canada should emulate other countries that allow private management of public hospitals, and more than half of those polled would like increased access to care provided by entrepreneurs.

What’s preventing these reforms?

In a word, Ottawa. The large and expanding federal cash transfers so often applauded by premiers actually prevent provinces from innovating and experimenting with more successful health-care policies. Why? Because to receive federal transfers, provinces must abide by the terms and conditions of the Canada Health Act (CHA), which prescribes often vaguely defined federal preferences for health policy and explicitly disallows certain reforms such as cost-sharing (where patients pay fees for some services, with protections for low-income people).

That threat of financial penalty discourages the provinces from following the examples of countries that provide more timely universal access to quality care such as Germany, Switzerland, Australia and the Netherlands. These countries follow the same blueprint, which includes patient cost-sharing for physician and hospital services (again, with protections for vulnerable populations including low-income individuals), private competition in the delivery of universally accessible services with money following patients to hospitals and surgical clinics, and allowing private purchases of care. Yet if Alberta adopted this blueprint, which has served patients in these other countries so well, it would risk losing billions in health-care transfers from Ottawa.

Finally, provinces have seemingly forgot the lesson from Saskatchewan’s surgical initiative, which ran between 2010 and 2014. That initiative, which included contracting out publicly financed surgeries to private clinics, reduced wait lists in Saskatchewan from among the highest in the country to among the shortest. And when the initiative ended, wait times began to grow again.

The simple reality of health care in every province including Alberta is that the government system is failing despite a world-class price tag. The solutions to this problem are known and increasingly desired by Canadians. Ottawa just needs to get out of the way and allow the provinces to genuinely reform the way we finance and deliver universal health care.

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