Government-appointed “Blue Ribbon Panel” sets the stage for 4 years of unwarranted austerity budgets

Although health care took a back seat to “jobs, pipelines, economy” during the recent election, it was expected and reasonable to assume that health care should now become a much spoken about subject area.
The UCP appointed Janice MacKinnon to chair the Blue Ribbon Panel, and to look into our province’s expenditures. The panel was given a very narrow mandate to examine expenses but not revenues, which will come later on in the UCP mandate. Instead, the panel was tasked with recommending a path to a balanced budget by the year 2022-23, without raising taxes.
“With the release of the much awaited ‘Blue Ribbon Panel report,’ we heard what we can expect from this government, and it confirmed that Albertans will be faced with 4 years of unwarranted austerity budgets and imposed legislative changes,” indicates Sandra Azocar, executive director Friends of Medicare.
Most Albertans would agree that we should be fiscally responsible, spend wisely, reduce waste, keep revenues and expenditures in balance, and in good times reduce the debt. Austerity is something different. Austerity is not the same as fiscal responsibility, it is simply a means of cutting government expenditures, regardless of the consequences. Even at the expense of growth and increased debt, and irrespective of the human costs. “We saw this during the Klein years, we have seen it in a number of budgets introduced by consecutive governments,” states Azocar.
Unlike the message from the Panel, and from Finance Minister Toews, Friends of Medicare has always maintained that Alberta does not have an expenditure problem but rather a revenue problem. In a province that is heavily reliant on one source of revenue, namely oil, we have not always planned ahead to move us out of this economic roller coaster, and to move towards creating a just and fair transition to a diversity of revenue sources. Instead, Alberta’s needed public services have long been at the mercy of the impacts of ill-prepared-for downturns in Alberta’s economy. “What we do know is that Albertans do not stop needing health care based on whether the economy is down or on an upward trend,” says Azocar.
The report indicates that: “What is required in Alberta is transformational change in the way health care services are delivered and health care professionals are compensated.” This transformational change should focus on expanding and improving our public health care system, rather than looking at expanding the role of private health care. “If we are serious about transformational change, we need to look at bringing back under the public umbrella all those areas in our health care that have been heavily privatized in this province, such as seniors care and home care,” states Azocar. 
The recommendation that Alberta look at the “use of alternative service delivery for day procedures and other services that do not have to be delivered in hospitals and could be delivered in private or not-for-profit facilities,” is the wrong and irresponsible direction to take. One of the basic problems with private health care is that entrepreneurs charge whatever the market will bear. It’s all about chasing a few customers who are willing to pay a lot more for even a little ‘extra.’
“If this recommendation is implemented and the government becomes the primary customer, it is contracting out of yet another essential part of our health care,” states Azocar. “Private health care maximizes price and cost as well as waste, so it systematically erodes global cost control, which is one of the essential strengths of a public health system.”
The idea that private health care is actually good for the public system is just another version of trickle-down economics, the nonsense claim that tax cuts for wealthy people and corporations benefit ordinary working people. Private medicine is trickle-down health care, and it’s just as misleading: if the government is serious about dealing with wait times, they would identify the factors bottle-necking the system as it currently stands. They would look at the role that private MRI and Diagnostic Imaging plays in gate-keeping surgical wait lists. They would look at how we can expand our public system to be more responsive to increased needs for services. 
We are not advocating the status quo. FOM wants to see a fundamental cultural change, and subsequent changes to provincial policy that will reflect the values of public health care, embrace clear provincial standards to improve access to care and establish safe ways of assessing quality of care. We are calling for change in leadership, firm requirements for accountability to the communities served, and a system to more effectively measure and meet population need for care. We are proposing an integrated public model that would vastly improve coordination and streamline all health services.
As we saw in today’s press conference, the government and their supporters will try to convince us that the sky will fall if we don’t eliminate the deficit. It won’t. They will use bogus household analogies to make their case. They will talk about taxes as a burden or a punishment and therefore off the table. And unfortunately, it will be the most vulnerable and least powerful who will pay the greatest price. In the end we all pay the price of growing inequality and insecurity.
“We suggest that perhaps the measure of a budget should be not some bogus measure of fiscal health but rather how it will contribute to human health and the health of the planet now and for future,” says Azocar. “Behind all the stats, health policies, and regulations there is a person who depends on not having to worry if they can afford access to quality health care based on need and not ability to pay.”
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