October 25th, 2020

Health care a UCP target, says FOM director


By Mabell, Dave on November 14, 2019.

Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare, speaks to media ahead of the Friends of Medicare annual general meeting Wednesday at the Fritz Sick Centre. Herald photo by Ian Martens @IMartensHerald

Dave Mabell

Lethbridge Herald

dmabell@lethbridgeherald.com

Albertans depending on ambulance service and older people who need medications may be the first hit by the government’s cuts.

But there’s more bad news ahead, a citizens’ group warns, possibly including more rural hospital service closures

Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare in Alberta, was in the city Wednesday to attend the Lethbridge local’s annual meeting. Despite previous promises to safeguard the province’s health-care system, the first UCP budget delayed construction on two major hospitals – including a southern Alberta cancer centre in Calgary.

Where the government appears to be heading, she said, is toward more medical procedures being performed in private, for-profit clinics instead of public hospitals. And rather than providing more supportive housing as the number of seniors increases, Azocar said the UCP seem intent to have private companies build and run needed facilities – backed by capital grants and operational subsidies from the public.

Already in Vegreville, she pointed out, a dementia care home operator has laid off its staff and sub-contracted care to another company that pays its workers low wages.

“Those are the kind of inconsistencies and lack of transparency and accountability that we are seeing now,” Azocar said.

At the same time, she said, the government has stripped about 46,000 Albertans of the prescription coverage they had as spouses of Alberta seniors. Potentially more than 60,000 people will be affected, she added.

The government’s rationale, Azocar noted, was that it would be saving about $36 million. Conservatives said those who depend on those medications should apply to Blue Cross or another plan.

But that could cost more than $750 a year, she said, or more than $1,400 for a couple.

“A lot of people can’t afford those premiums, so they’ll be left without coverage.”

Another key issue, she said, is the drive to reduce health-care workers’ wages and staffing levels.

Azocar said the government’s “advanced vacancy management program” means many vacancies won’t be filled when someone retires or is transferred, for example. And that means remaining staff members will be forced “to work more with less staff.”

That’s also true for emergency responders in Alberta’s ambulances, she said. Their budget has also been cut significantly.

“Policy decisions that are made today will impact not only in the next couple of months but the next couple of years,” she cautioned.

As the UCP look for more ways to cut health-care budgets, Azocar said rural hospitals are at- risk. The previous Conservative government has already closed acute-care services in places as large as Coaldale and Fort Macleod.

And more closures could follow after the government receives an Ernst and Young report on health-care delivery, she warned. Right now, she said rural services could be impacted by the government’s attempts to reduce doctors’ on-call pay, and to limit where newly graduated physicians can practise.

“Rural communities need to be aware of what some of these cuts, the impact it will have on their communities.”

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