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The Alberta Health Act: Are Alberta's health care 'reformers' just going through the motions?

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After four months of soothing "dialogue" with plain-vanilla Albertans, a nine-member committee of health care, government and business types -- including one former union leader -- has come up with Alberta's latest scheme for patching up the province's supposedly rickety public health care system.

The committee's solution? Something called the Alberta Health Act, which is a really cool idea because it shares 66 per cent of its name with the popular Canada Health Act.

The Alberta Health Act, in the words of the government press release that announced publication of the committee's "Putting People First" report yesterday, will "lay out a framework for moving forward on new health legislation and improvements to the health system." Eventually, that is.

When it comes to pass, the release said, the Alberta Health Act "is intended to help guide Alberta’s publicly funded health system into the future." Some time in the future, that is…

That future won't be any time soon because, to be blunt about this, there's got to be an election between now and then, and if anything is bad news for an already shaky government it's a public perception they're monkeying around with health care right before a vote.

Indeed, that's how this committee came about. It was set up last February by Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, who had just been shuffled into the post by Premier Ed Stelmach. Zwozdesky's job there was to use his renowned diplomatic skills to defuse a full-blown public relations crisis that had erupted over massively unpopular monkeying by the previous health minister, Calgary-West MLA Ron Liepert.

The suave Zwozdesky reckoned that if you could get folks talking, they'd calm down. The result was the committee, chaired by Edmonton-Rutherford Conservative Fred Horne, another pleasant guy who smilingly takes on a lot of the government's really crappy jobs but never seems to be rewarded with a cabinet post.

Sure enough, by the time the committee had done talking and Zwozdesky had had a chance to reassemble most of the crockery his predecessor had smashed, the health care system was looking pretty copasetic again to a lot of Albertans. This is true even though the Wildrose Alliance is out there soliciting health care "horror stories." The damage wrought by the belligerent Liepert was all but forgotten.

And so the report -- with its plans for a new health act -- was rolled out yesterday with only modest fanfare at a Calgary news conference that neither the premier nor the health minister bothered to attend. What's more, now that the report is printed, it’s pretty clear it's about all we're going to hear or see from this process until after the next election.

Now, there's something very familiar about this tale.

Back at the start of the 21st Century, former Alberta premier Ralph Klein vowed to make "reforming" health care his hill to die on. But when he left office in 2006, health care was still unreformed from Klein's perspective. His vaunted Third Way of delivering health care had broken up on the rocks of public opinion.

Klein was succeeded by Stelmach, who also came into office with grandiose plans of opening up the health care system to private-sector "improvements." Liepert stomped around Alberta telling citizens that the time for yakking was over and the time for action had come. "We have a plan, and we are going to follow it," he stated.

But the Stelmach-Liepert Fourth Way broke up too on the same reef as the Third Way. Liepert was sent packing to the Energy Ministry, which in Alberta pretty much runs itself.

The assumption of supporters of public health care is that it has been their ability to mobilize opposition to these schemes that has saved Alberta's public health system. No doubt there is plenty of truth to this. Without opposition, surely, the plans of an actor like Liepert might have moved ahead.

Yet it is hard to shake the feeling that this is only part of the story. Indeed, it often looks like Alberta's supposedly pro-market premiers are only going through the motions when it comes to talking about more private health care. Liepert was the closest we’ve come in a generation to a genuine "reformer."

That's crazy, you might think. Why push an idea that's bound to be unpopular with voters if you don't believe in it? Well, when you're a politician, sometimes you need to win the support of more than one constituency.

Sure, it's nice to have the public on side come election time. Ensuring that is Zwozdesky's job. But you also need the big-money boys, the ones who pony up your election campaign budgets and give you hell behind closed doors if you're not enthusiastic enough about the bees in their bonnets. That was supposed to be Liepert's job.

What better way to keep both groups smiling than to always promise dramatic reforms that will please everyone, and when the crunch comes, back off and leave things the heck alone until … next time?

After all, you can tell your financial backers: "We tried, and The People said no!"

You can tell the public, "Hey, we listened to you and we paid attention!"

And you can tell everyone: "Next time, we promise to try really, really hard to get it right!"

Is this what the Alberta Health Act is? The Fifth Way? All about keeping everybody happy until next time … after the next election when we launch the Sixth Way?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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