The removal of Alberta Health Service’s president and CEO has sparked renewed concerns about the UCP government’s plans to shift more services to private providers.
In Edmonton, about 75 people including public health care advocates, doctors, NDP MLAs and union leaders gathered at the steps of the legislature to show support for public health care Wednesday while protesters gathered at McDougall Centre in Calgary.
The rallies, organized by the group Protect our Province, came after AHS announced Monday Dr. Verna Yiu was out as president and CEO. Edmonton’s rally saw one attendee with a sign declaring “we want Yiu back.”
Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) president Mike Parker said at the demonstration the UCP appears “hell-bent” on privatizing health care.
“I would suggest that the CEO was getting in the way of these actions to privatize,” Parker told Postmedia, adding while workers face wage rollbacks, they are also struggling to staff up, with 400 vacant paramedic shifts in the next week in Edmonton alone.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said at the legislature the idea that private services can offer improvements has been “debunked, disproved and discredited,” while Friends of Medicare executive director Chris Gallaway accused the UCP of wanting to break the health-care system in order to claim to be fixing it.
Since Monday’s announcement, Yiu expressed her support of Canadian public health care “as a basic universal right” in an updated Twitter biography that previously touted her having the “best job in Canadian health care.”
The province’s plan to double the number of publicly-funded surgeries through private facilities in an effort to cut wait times was put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Health Minister Jason Copping said Monday those plans are back on the front burner.
“It’s time to move forward with an ambitious agenda to improve and modernize the health system, and renewed leadership at Alberta Health Services will support delivering those changes,” Copping said.
With the start of the spring sitting of the legislature, Premier Jason Kenney said the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the need to expand Alberta’s health-care capacity, and that under the surgical initiative, no Albertan would have to pay for surgery with a credit card. With a $515-million boost to health operating spending in the most recent budget, the government has also promised to expand intensive care and improve paramedic service while training and recruiting more health-care workers.
On Wednesday NDP Leader Rachel Notley held a news conference in Calgary where she demanded the UCP government halt their plans to revamp the system and let voters decide between the two parties’ health care platforms.
“I am calling on them to take their plans for cuts, chaos and American-style health care off the table and put it on the ballot with honesty,” said Notley, who also accused the UCP of firing Yiu to pave the way for widespread health care privatization.
“The fact that they had to fire her to make way for their changes should raise the alarm for every Albertan,” said Notley, promising that her party, if elected, would provide stable funding for public health care, stop wage cuts for workers and increase mental health supports.
Speaking to Postmedia’s web series Under the Dome earlier this week, Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said the timing of Yiu’s departure should be understood within the context of the party’s upcoming review of Kenney and the disapproval many rural UCP MLAs had for Yiu’s management of AHS during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He noted allowing more private delivery of public health care has long been on the UCP’s agenda, but without an immediate replacement for Yiu, “how do you implement such a dramatic change in the health-care system months before the election?”