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Kenney attacks Alberta's rural health care

By: 
John Bell

May 3, 2020

The Alberta United Conservative government of Jason Kenney is leading the way in using COVID-19 as an excuse to destroy public services and workers’ lives.


Kenney and his rogue health minister Tyler Shandro just announced they will invest $500 million of public funds into privately owned surgical services.

“Albertans deserve a world-class health system that delivers the right care, in the right setting, at the right time,” said Kenney, careful to include all the buzzwords. The speech doesn’t explain why the same money invested in public health care wouldn’t have the same or better outcomes.

To be fair, Kenney started attacking public health before the pandemic arrived. His government slashed funding for nursing and ripped up doctors’ contracts in February, arbitrarily cutting their pay by 20%. All told the UCP plans to cut $1.9 billion from health spending, and privatizing the whole range of services like catering, cleaning and lab work.

Kenney has targeted family medicine doctors, the practitioners who actually spent time getting to know their clients. Preventative medicine is to be replaced by on-line or phone consultations with privately owned, anonymous doctors who don’t know the patient’s full history.


Doctors are shutting down their practices and leaving the province as a result.

But privatizers like Health Minister Sandro are making out just fine. He and his wife own and operate a for-profit health services and insurance company called Vital Partners. Shandro angrily denies this amounts to a gross conflict of interest. Kenney is ignoring calls to fire him.

Educators are also waiting for the axe to fall on public education. One of Kenney’s first acts was to order Alberta school boards to remove the word “public” from their names and all their correspondence. Cuts have already caused the loss of thousands of teaching and education support jobs.

Rural no more

One thing holding the UCP back from privatizing more was a legal commitment to support health care in rural communities. That support was never generous. According to Al Kemmere, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, small towns supported 20% of the population but got only 5.8% of the health budget. And it was hard to attract doctors–since Kenney’s cuts it has become near impossible.

The regulations allowed rural doctors to charge the government a premium, as a way to keep them in the communities.

On April 25 Kenney announced that more than a 140 small towns and villages would no longer qualify as “rural”. The explosion of anger in the Conservative hinterland was immediate and total.

The next day Shandro tried to walk it back, saying the change was a clerical error.  Even Tory supporters didn’t believe it. NDP health critic David Shepherd simply called Shandro a liar: “The minister clearly lied when he was asked to define. He knew he was changing that definition on Friday. His bulletin says he has changed that definition”

It remains to be seen how much political damage the privatization stumbling has cost Kenney and the UCP.
 

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