Alberta’s bureaucratic shuffle bears little resemblance to necessary health-care reforms

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, November 14, 2023
Alberta’s bureaucratic shuffle bears little resemblance to necessary health-care reforms

Sometime soon, the Smith government will begin a major shift in the administrative structure of the province’s health-care system, switching from a single overarching health authority (Alberta Health Services) to multiple authorities each tasked with overseeing one area of the health-care system. Unsurprisingly, the usual defenders of the status quo were quick to decry the reform as unnecessary or problematic. To other critics, this seems a lot like a distraction tactic from the old playbook where the deck chairs on the Titanic are shuffled to make it appear as if the government is finally doing something about the province’s failing health-care system while nothing will really change.

Then again, it’s also possible that the provincial government is building the structure for some very positive reforms that will meaningfully benefit Alberta’s patients in the future. Alberta’s health-care system is not known for being efficient, effective or timely—and reforms are badly needed.

Among the provinces, Alberta’s provincial health spending ranked second-highest (after adjusting for age and sex) in 2021, the latest year of available data, while Albertans endure health-care wait times that are longer than the national average. Nationally, Canada is a relatively high spender among universal health-care countries, yet 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.

Put simply, Albertans spend more and get less than their counterparts in other developed countries when it comes to universal health care. The solution to this problem is to learn from countries such as Switzerland, Australia and Germany, which all deliver more timely universal care with comparable health spending to our own.

So 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. Alberta’s new bureaucratic shuffle appears to bear little resemblance to these higher-performing approaches pursued elsewhere. And if the bureaucratic shuffle is the entire goal, then this reform will likely generate little to no improvement.

But again, perhaps the Smith government is setting the stage for meaningful reform. Before moving from a government-dominated health-care system (like we have in Alberta and every other province) to a higher-performing model with competitive patient-focused delivery, governments must first separate and clearly define the roles of the purchaser of health care and the providers of that care. The Alberta Health Services, which the Smith government will soon begin to dissect, directly provides, oversees and pays for health-care services (e.g. surgeries) in the province. This leads to a lack of transparency and the politicization of health-care decision-making.

A shift to multiple health authorities focused on the delivery of care, accountable to other authorities and the provincial government, has hints of the more transparent and contractual relationships between payers and providers that have reduced wait times and enhanced health system efficiency in a number of European countries. If that’s indeed the government’s goal, Albertans could soon benefit from an improved health-care system.

In other words, if this reform, to move from one large health authority to multiple authorities, is really 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 well be on the road to shorter wait times and a higher-quality health-care system.

However, if this is the provincial government working from the same old playbook, with another administrative shuffle to distract Albertans from the real problems in the health-care system, then nothing will really change and patients will pay the price.