2021: Year in Review

2021: A Year in Review

From our outgoing Executive Director, Sandra Azocar


It is with mixed emotions that I write what will be my last year-end review. On December 3rd, 2021, I was humbled to be elected as a Vice President for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and as I transition into my new role, I’m confident that FOM will continue to be a force in our ongoing fight to protect public health care from the forces of privatization. 

I want to start out by thanking each one of you, our allies, fellow advocates and our organizational members for your ongoing support of Friends of Medicare. We are only able to carry out our advocacy work because of your ongoing support. 

I want to thank our Board members for their leadership and support throughout the past nine years that I was fortunate to be in this position. During my tenure as the Executive Director of Friends of Medicare, I was extremely fortunate to be able to meet and work with some amazing humans. Their inspiration and passion towards social justice and equality encouraged me every day to keep going, even though the darkest times.

I could not have done my work without the support and professionalism of all the staff members that I was able to work with during this time: Joel French, Trevor Zimmerman, and our current staff, Alyssa Pretty, are all exceptional and unique in their own way and I owe a debt of gratitude to each of them for making this fight a little bit easier to bear.

2021 has come and gone and it has become almost cliché to say that this has been yet another challenging year. FOM staff continued to work from home and continued to contend with engaging in advocacy within the context of this ongoing pandemic and its subsequent, virtual reality. Here are some of the highlights of our work in 2021:


COVID-19:

Weeks before the start of 2021, we were already seeing Alberta’s contact-tracing system collapsing, and without this data, we were unable to know with certainty all sources of infection when health care workers contracted COVID-19. By January, Alberta’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout was already behind schedule, despite a government press release at the end of 2020 that indicated that planning and preparation was “well-advanced.” Following the death of the first three health care providers as a result of COVID-19, FOM called for expedited vaccinations for front-line health care workers, paid sick leave for all workers, and for the government to immediately recognize and accept workplace spread by including COVID-19 in the presumptive clause of the Worker’s Compensation Act, to ensure workers could receive coverage.

In January 2021, while Albertans had been tasked by the Premier with personal responsibility in lieu of adequate and timely public health restrictions, and while our health care workers continued to risk the safety of their families and themselves in order to save the lives of Albertans, several UCP MLA’s and government staffers opted to ignore their own government’s recommendations and vacation abroad. After much outrage from Albertans and after much foot-dragging from Premier Kenney, several of the members of the travelling circus resigned or were otherwise dismissed by the Premier. 

In February 2021, FOM was relieved to learn that under the Alberta Critical Worker Benefit, 380,000 workers would receive a one-time top-up payment of $1200. Almost 8 months prior, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the federal government had reached a funding agreement with the provinces and territories to compensate essential workers for the risk they would be undertaking by working throughout this pandemic. While federal funding began flowing to provinces in June 2020, the Alberta government left more than $300 million on the table. A report by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) revealed that per capita, Alberta had received the highest per capita level of federal COVID-19 response spending of all the provinces, at $10,400 per Albertan. In comparison, only 7% of COVID response funding has been contributed by the provincial government.

On June 18th, in preparation for the “best summer ever,” Premier Kenney announced that as 72% of eligible Albertans had received their first dose of vaccines, the province would be lifting the brunt of its COVID-19 public health measures. Albertans were encouraged to enter a ‘the open for summer vaccine lottery” where people could win $1 million for getting a vaccine dose, and the province’s pandemic response was downgraded to an “endemic.” In a race to become the first jurisdiction in North America to lift all public health measures, and with the pandemic purportedly over, the government announced that by August 16 they would: 

  • End mandatory masking
  • Close all testing centres, requiring those with serious symptoms to get tested at a doctor's office or the Emergency Unit at a hospital
  • Largely do away contacts tracing
  • Stop requiring people who test positive to isolate
  • Stop asking people with mild symptoms to get tested
  • Stop issuing medical data on COVID-19

They doubled down on their vaccine-only strategy. And with this announcement, our Premier went on a weeks-long vacation, while his entire caucus went radio silent. 

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Travis Toews announced that the government would be moving forward with plans to cut salaries of Alberta’s nurses. The newly proposed 3% salary rollback came in addition to previously announced rollbacks, in the form of reduced shift and weekend premiums. Altogether, Alberta’s nurses were facing at least a 5% compensation reduction. Nurses took to the street to protest, and FOM stood side by side with the very nurses who have been essential throughout COVID-19. Nurses, as all HCW, have gone above and beyond during the worst of the pandemic, and they literally put their own lives at risk to save the lives of countless Albertans. But as the pandemic finally seemed to be easing up, the government wasted no time in repaying nurses’ sacrifice by slashing their wages. 

While politicians attended stampedes and BBQs, Alberta’s doctors, health care experts, infectious disease experts, and front-line workers were sounding the alarm about the impending fourth wave, and calling for this government to reverse their decision to end public health measures to protect Albertans and our health care system. By the beginning of August, Friends of Medicare and our fellow Albertans took to the streets for 16 days to protest the reckless disregard for Albertans’ lives. The power of the people was ultimately felt by the government, and they delayed the removal of these basic health measures until later in September. 

However, the 4th wave was by this time in an uphill climb. In the weeks-long absence of Kenney, Shandro, and Dr. Hinshaw from media scrutiny, Alberta’s 4th wave worsened, over 3000 people died of COVID-19, and our hospital wards and intensive care units buckled under the strain. Over 1500 surgeries were cancelled and our HCWs were witnessing death, grief, fear and uncertainty daily. The lack of leadership effectively threw our health care system off a cliff. 

Business for this government went about as usual and on August 10, a news release from AHS announced that Hartley R. Harris had become the newest member of the AHS board. Of concern was that Mr. Harris was well known to Alberta’s then-Health Minister Shandro, as the Chief Financial Officer for Shandro’s 2019 campaign and a financial supporter. Previously in the summer, we saw another appointment to the AHS board: Jack Mintz. A similarly troubling choice, as he was previously appointed chair of the government’s “expert panel,” tasked with coming up with ideas to respond to low oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic. Importantly, In addition to his leadership roles at Ernst & Young and the Fraser Institute, Mintz sits on the board of Rapid Test & Trace. The company provides private COVID-19 testing, an ostensibly profitable business in a province planning to close designated testing facilities. As he is fundamentally opposed to universal public health care, we find his appointment to the AHS board incredibly troubling. 

In September, following a summer marked by needless death, in an attempt to salvage his political career Kenney removed Tyler Shandro from the role of Health Minister and appointed Jason Copping in his place. Things to note about our new Health Minister: during the UCP’s 2020 convention, Copping’s own Calgary-Varsity Constituency Association submitted Policy 11, calling on the Government of Alberta to “support the option of a privately-funded and privately-managed healthcare system.” And, in November 2020, Copping, as Minister of Labour and Immigration, introduced Bill 47: the Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act, legislation which significantly limits workplace safety protections, and strips workers of their right to PTSD presumptive coverage. For affected health care workers, and emergency services workers, this is especially troubling considering the mental health stress that our front-line workers have endured, and will continue to endure throughout and following this pandemic 

After a series of anti-vaccination protests were held in front of hospitals, the government took its time in expanding regulations pertaining to Bill 1: the Critical Infrastructure Defense Act to include hospitals. Days later, on September 30, they announced that the Priorities Implementation Cabinet Committee (PICC) would now require proof of vaccination or negative testing for Alberta’s 25,000 public services employees. Doctors, health care workers, experts and advocates (including Friends of Medicare) had been consistently calling for an urgent fire break to protect Albertans and prevent the imminent collapse of our health care system. Despite this, the Premier made very clear that there were “no other measures currently under consideration.” And although he had refused aid offers just two days prior, Alberta was left with no choice but to accept aid in the form of ICU-trained staff from the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian Red Cross, and Newfoundland and Labrador.


Seniors Care:

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare our urgent need for major seniors’ care reform. Across the country, over 15,000 seniors in care have died from the joint impact of COVID-19, and a senior’s care system that was woefully unprepared to deal with the crisis. Throughout this pandemic, health care workers, experts and advocates have renewed with urgency their calls for government action and national Long-Term Care standards to protect care residents and workers. Friends of Medicare has been at the forefront, pushing for systemic changes, including national standards and removing profit from care. Yet our governments remain determined to maintain the status quo. Despite the disproportional impact that COVID-19 has had on seniors in residential continuing care, the Alberta government has given no indication that they intend to deviate from their agenda of ever more privatization.

In March, Friends of Medicare, along with seniors’, labour and advocacy groups gathered outside of the Federal Building to mark the one-year anniversary of the declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic. We installed a visual presentation of the lives we have lost, highlighting those of Alberta’s seniors who have been disproportionately affected, and called for changes in seniors’ care in this province. 

Also in March, FOM joined provincial and territorial health coalitions and advocates representing more than a million Canadians to demand that the federal government and provinces work together to establish national standards for long-term residential care. We released a legal opinion setting out a proposal for a commitment from the federal government to ongoing funding for long-term care, including clear criteria requiring the provinces to improve quality, accountability and take profit out of seniors’ care.

In April Bill 70: COVID-19 Related Measures Act, was introduced to ensure legal protection for health services facilities—including continuing care operators—facing lawsuits over illness or death due to exposure to COVID-19. The legislation was to apply retroactively to March 1, 2020—prior to when Alberta enacted its emergency public health measures. Any existing lawsuits not meeting the new standard for gross negligence could potentially be thrown out, even if they met the standards that existed at the time they were initially filed. Ultimately, Bill 70 prevents families from being able to seek justice and hold care homes responsible for the negligence of their loved ones. The primary entities that benefit from this policy decision are private, for-profit continuing care companies. This bill in no way serves the public interest or the interest of those Albertans who tragically died potentially preventable deaths in a system more focused on profit than on the lives of the most vulnerable in our society. Of particular concern was that Bill 70 was tabled by Richard Gotfried, MLA for Calgary-Fish Creek, who is also the member appointed to chair the government’s Facility-Based Continuing Care (FBCC) Review. 

In April, Friends of Medicare once again joined provincial and territorial Health Coalitions, Canadians 4 LTC, advocates, family members, and seniors for a National Day of Action for Long-Term Care Standards. Across Canada, we virtually protested the failure of our federal and provincial governments to set much-needed national standards for long-term care. Federal Budget 2021 confirmed that the federal government intended to pass their responsibilities for developing national standards on to the Health Standards Organization and the Canadian Standards Association, which will help to inform “ongoing discussions with provinces and territories on improving the quality of life of seniors in long-term care.” Further, Budget 2021 proposed to provide $3 billion over five years to Health Canada to support provinces and territories in ensuring that the national long-term care standards proposed by these groups were applied and permanent. Alarmingly, the budget also confirmed that the federal government intends to leave it up to each province and territory to determine how changes are eventually applied in their respective long-term care sectors, despite the fact that several provincial governments are entangled with the for-profit long-term care industry, which is notorious for prioritizing profit over providing much-needed care.

In June we finally saw the release of the Facility-Based Continuing (FBCC) Review Panel’s final report. This review will serve as a reference for the impending consolidation of 15 pieces of current legislation that oversee our continuing care system. Unfortunately, the report’s focus was on potential savings, with little consideration to the impact recommendations will have on the care and lives of the people who actually live in these facilities.

Following up on Bill 70, in June, Friends of Medicare and Public Interest Alberta joined organizations from civil society, labour, and senior citizens representing hundreds of thousands of Albertans speaking out against Bill 70: COVID Related Measures Act. Twenty-three (23) organizations signed an open letter to demand that this legislation not be passed into law because of the dangers it posed o Alberta seniors and their families. The letter was sent to Premier Kenney, Minister of Health, Tyler Shandro and UCP MLA Richard Gotfried, the sponsor of this bill, and tabled in the Alberta Legislature by MLA Christina Grey, Critic for Labour and Immigration & Official Opposition House Leader. Despite widespread opposition, the Bill was passed on June 16th, 2021.

In July, Health Minister Shandro announced the allocation of $400 million in operational funding over four years, for 6,000 continuing care beds across the province. Of these, 2,200 will be new beds, and the remaining 3,800 will be refurbished or renovated from existing spaces in private facilities. As part of the government’s so-called “new approach” to continuing care, they opened a bidding process for private continuing care operators last September, to identify “underutilized spaces” in existing buildings to become publicly-funded, privately-delivered continuing care beds. The refurbishment and renovation of beds will supposedly be paid for by operators, however, of concern is the recommendation made in the government’s Facility-Based Continuing Care review which would allow operators to freely increase accommodation fees as they see fit, effectively passing any costs onto seniors and their families. 

The next phase of the government’s continuing care plan will be to include capital grants under “ASLI 2.0.” Currently ASLI (Affordable Supportive Living Initiative), allows the government to split construction costs between the operators and the province, followed by operational costs to run private and non-profit facilities. The province does not own the buildings, and when contracts expire, the public is first in line to buy the buildings back—at market price. The government continues to move forward in implementing the recommendations made in the facility-based continuing care review, but these do nothing to alleviate the major cost burdens on seniors and their families and are not nearly enough to improve care and working conditions in these facilities.


Pharmacare:

In February, Friends of Medicare and our allies in the Alberta Pharmacare Working Group were encouraged by the tabling and subsequent debate of Bill C-213, An Act to Enact the Canada Pharmacare Act. If passed, this private member’s bill would have created a framework for the implementation of a national Pharmacare program modelled after the Canada Health Act, and founded on the principles of public administration, comprehensiveness, universality, portability and accessibility. FOM organized and participated in webinars and presentations in support of this bill, but unfortunately, our enthusiasm was quickly thwarted when the bill was voted down in the House of Commons on February 24th, 2021. 

Even though this year saw us going through a Federal Election, very little was said or done around the need to put into place a national Pharmacare plan. Following the newly re-elected Liberal government’s Speech from the Throne, Friends of Medicare were disappointed to see an utter lack of movement towards the long-awaited expansion and much-needed improvement of our health care system. Particularly, we saw little direction as it pertains to the implementation of universal Pharmacare. 


Privatization:

Alberta and other provinces have seen creeping privatization over the decades, especially in areas like surgical services, medical laboratory services, and continuing care. If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it should be that we all depend on well-funded, staffed and resourced public health care. People Canada-wide need a more responsive public health care system, and that can only be achieved by improving and expanding our current system, not by allowing private, for-profit alternatives. Yet, in this province, we have seen our government repeatedly fail to learn the lessons of this pandemic, and instead proceed with continuous ideological attempts to privatize our public health care. 

In April, we learned that K-Bro Linen Inc. would become the sole providers of laundry services for AHS across Alberta. While this news came as no surprise, it was a disappointing indication of this government’s continued bent towards perpetuating privatization experiments within our public health care system. In areas like Medicine Hat, where approximately 1.2 million kilograms of laundry were processed every year at the Medicine Hat Regional Hospital, contract changes impact surrounding communities including the Brooks, Bassano and Bow Island hospitals, seniors’ residences in Medicine Hat, home care, and the residential detoxification centreand mean the loss of at least 250 jobs at the Medicine Hat Regional Hospital alone.  

April also saw Alberta Health Services release a Request for Proposals (RFP) for ophthalmology chartered surgical facilities, in a move to further privatize a sector that is already heavily privatized. This follows the recommendation of EY (Ernst & Young), the high-priced accounting/consulting firm contracted by the Alberta government to conduct the performance review of AHS last year. Notably, the office responsible for overseeing AHS’ RFPs is the newly-created Health Contacting Secretariatalso awarded to EY as of August 2020, and created based on their own recommendation.

The RFP also indicated that health care workers from AHS would be working in the chartered surgical facilities, which strikes at the core issue of wait times: regardless of the number of beds available or who is delivering them, health care workers are a finite resource. Especially now, while our health care system has been pushing the limits when it comes to capacity, while doctors are leaving the province, and while the government has been clear about their plans to eliminate thousands of health care positions, siphoning workers to staff private facilities can only worsen our existing human resource problem.

In July, Friends of Medicare stood alongside health care workers from Capital Care and Carewest protesting the expected sale of Alberta’s public Long-Term Care facilities. Both organizations are in their sixth decade of operation, and together operate 2,800 public LTC care beds in Calgary and Edmonton. The 3000 workers at these facilities are at risk of losing their jobs if Capital Care and Carewest are sold and privatized, or at best, being rehired by the new private operator at significantly lower pay, and potentially poorer working conditions. 

The privatization of continuing care facilities reflects a distressing trend of turning vulnerable Albertans-seniors, veterans and the chronically ill into commodities from which private seniors’ care corporations can profit. 


Other Activities: 

This year we not only supported picket lines and protests when it was possible to come together safely in person, but we also brought our virtual greetings to the annual conventions of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, the United Nurses of Alberta, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, and the Alberta Federation of Labour. We look forward to these opportunities every year as a chance to personally thank members of these organizations for their support for the work of civil society in advancing forward the fight for a better society. 

Throughout 2021, organized and participated in several webinars about issues impacting our public health care system. On January 21, 2021, Friends of Medicare and Public Interest Alberta's Seniors' Task Force co-hosted a webinar entitled: It’s Time to Reimagine Continuing Care. We were excited to be joined by guest speakers and seniors' care experts Dr. Margaret McGregor, Dr. Pat Armstrong, and Dr. Rebecca Graff-McRae for an important and timely online conversation about our continuing care system during COVID-19 and beyond. 

In April, we were joined by Lorian Hardcastle (Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law & Department of Community Health Services in the Cumming School of Medicine at the U of C) and Alejandro Pachon (Senior Researcher at Canadian Union of Public Employees), for an online conversation on the 2021 provincial budget, and what it meant for Albertans and our health care system. 

In June 2021, Friends of Medicare was joined by Melissa Miller, a personal injury lawyer focused on nursing home litigation and founding member of Canadians 4 LTC Standards, to discuss Bill 70: COVID-19 Related Measures Act 

Throughout this year we have continued our advocacy work alongside Albertans for Ethical Drug Policy, and we have come together on several occasions to bring attention to the urgent need for expanded and enhanced harm reduction services in Alberta. In June, to mark the Global Day of Action Against Oppressive Drug Policy: Support, Don’t Punish, we came together with business owners and community members to release a joint statement, and renew our calls to stop the unjust assault on harm reduction services. Harm reduction services (including SCS) not only save lives, but keep people healthy, connect them with other health care and social services, and ultimately saves money for the health system. Despite the vital importance that Supervised Consumption Services (SCS) play in the lives of the individuals who rely on them, their families and communities, the UCP remains focused on pushing their 'Alberta Model,' and have subsequently closed SCS facilities in Lethbridge and Edmonton, and with another closure impending in Calgary. This government’s actions clearly reveal their indifference to the staggering death toll and toward people who use drugs—our neighbours, friends, family members, employees, colleagues and community members. The deaths will continue to rise as a result. 


As we end this year with yet another variant to contend with, our government is once again showing a repeated failure to lead or to take the necessary action to stop this rapidly spreading variant from flooding hospitals. Alberta continues to push an overwhelmed and exhausted, depleted staff of frontline workers; we continue to see hospital beds closing across the province; we are once again at risk of seeing our hospitals and ICU’s full. We are under a constant code red, and there are too many days when Albertans do not have access to ambulances across the province. Once again, Albertans are being abandoned with the responsibility of protecting ourselves and each other. Albertans deserve better. 

When we finally emerge from this pandemic, the political will to expand our public health care will be more crucial than ever. As has been made abundantly clear in 2020 and 2021, profit has no place in our health carefull stop. It has become abundantly clear that we must stand up to demand better from those that seek to lead us. There are human lives at stake, and we cannot continue to allow ideological and politically self-serving policies to determine who lives and who dies. 

While I am no longer the Executive Director of Friends of Medicare, I remain a steadfast ally of this important organization, and an ardent advocate for a universal public health care system based on need, and not the ability to pay. As we reflect on the challenges of the past year and consider the challenges undoubtedly yet to come, I will make the most of my final year-end review to invite you to join Friends of Medicare in what will undoubtedly be a fight to protect our public health care from the perils of privatization. In this strange and uncertain new year, let us resolve to stand up for our vital public health care system when it needs us most.