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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Will the Alberta cabinet shuffle improve healthcare?

Nine days after the Alberta Tories captured yet another majority in the provincial election, Premier Ed Stelmach yesterday announced his new cabinet appointments.

One of the biggest changes is a portfolio swap between Dave Hancock, who was Minister of Health, and Ron Liepert (right), who was Minister of Education.

As was the case after the province's most famous trade -- the $15 million the Edmonton Oilers received in exchange for Wayne Gretzky -- what everyone wants to know is, who won? Will Mr Liepert be a better health minister than Mr Hancock was, or is healthcare getting short shrift?

Mr Hancock wasn't wildly popular as health minister -- but, then again, he wasn't hated, either. There was some talk of Mr Hancock potentially losing his seat in Edmonton-Whitemud this year, but the results ended up going strongly in his favour.

Two major infection-control scandals in Vegreville and Lloydminster may have hurt his cause as health minister. As well, the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) had butted heads with Mr Hancock over Bill 41, a piece of legislation passed in December that gave the government the authority to take control of professional regulatory bodies, including the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, in emergencies like those in Vegreville and Lloydminster. Nevertheless, the AMA said both before and after the election that it would be happy to continue working with Mr Hancock.

Judging from Mr Liepert's Obama-like first pronouncement as health minister -- "Change has to take place" -- he's got big ideas. According to the Canadian Press, Mr Liepert will deliver an "action plan" for the province's healthcare system within the next month.

But really, it sounds like more of the same: "The current system is not working and it's not sustainable. It's obvious that more money hasn't produced a better product."

Based on the little that's been said so far, Mr Liepert is suggesting that the government control spending by implementing aspects of the 2002 Mazankowski report, which include increased competition in the healthcare sector and alternative revenue models -- code words in most circles for increased privatization. The Canadian Press reported that "he read the Mazankowski report this week and finds its recommendations are still as relevant today as they were when the report on reforming Alberta's health care system was released eight years ago." He also mentioned the 2002 Graydon report (PDF), which suggested charging Albertans a health insurance deductible of up to 1.5% of their annual income.

Now, the Alberta Medical Association is pushing for a renewed focus from the government on improving access to physicians, by providing more resources for training and recruiting doctors, nurses and healthcare workers. AMA president Dr Darryl LaBuick told me earlier this week about his priorities for the next session of parliament. "Some of the big areas are, of course, first of all, improving our primary care networks, access to primary care, and recruiting an adequate amount of physicians to our province, in general practice and specialties, surgery, psychiatry, pediatrics. And a more stable electronic medical record environment in the province."

According to this Edmonton Journal profile of Mr Liepert, opposition members are concerned about his style of governing.

"Part of what we're looking for in the health-care system is a need for predictability and the need for steady management and we've got a NASCAR driver, so hold on," said Laurie Blakeman, Liberal health critic.

"He's a NASCAR kind of guy, likes it fast and loud, fast and loose and puts his boots up on the desk and shoots from the lip."

Blakeman is skeptical about Liepert's knowledge in the health field, she said, since he doesn't answer questions or give meaningful input in the legislature.
Only time will tell whether healthcare will emerge the winner of this cabinet swap. But if Mr Liepert sticks to his word and moves forward and announces his plans as quickly as he has promised to, then we may know very soon whether this swap will benefit Albertans.

Also included in Mr Stelmach's announcement yesterday was the appointment of first-time MLA and former emergency physician Dr Raj Sherman as Mr Liepert's parliamentary assistant.

Dr David Swann, a Calgary Liberal MLA, was reelected with solid support. He's a fairly safe bet to continue on as the Liberal environment critic.

Photo: PC Association of Alberta

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