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Leaker exposes risky health-care privatization scheme in Alberta

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Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital. Image: Ian Stumpf/Wikimedia Commons

Panicky sounding United Conservative Party "issues managers" were frantically insisting yesterday everything is copacetic and above board with secret plans to build a $200-million private orthopedic surgical hospital in Edmonton.

No way will this result in two-tier health care, they contended, often shrilly calling anyone who suggested otherwise a liar, even as the number of voices saying the opposite grew.

But the surprise revelation of a backroom privatization scheme hatched by high-priced corporate lobbyists and big donors to Conservative causes, complete with private access to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, apparent pre-approval by the minister, and an expensive poison-pill contract provision to make sure future governments don't tear up the deal, sure doesn't inspire confidence.

The backstory dates to June, when Elan MacDonald, nowadays a politically well-connected lobbyist and not so long a ago a senior advisor to Progressive Conservative premiers Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford, made three presentations to groups of orthopedic surgeons from the Edmonton area.

The proposal would see the for-profit hospital perform all non-emergency orthopedic surgical procedures in Alberta's capital region, as many as 10,000 operations each year, under contract to the government.

But most of the region's orthopedic surgeons need to be on board for this idea to have legs. Apparently at least one of them wasn't.

At any rate, someone made a recording of one of MacDonald's presentations and sent it to CBC Edmonton's two investigative reporters, Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell. They published their scoop yesterday morning. By yesterday afternoon, other media were filing followups.

A story that leaks before the talking points and spin are all agreed upon, and the message boxes memorized by even the slowest-witted MLA, is the kind of nightmare that keeps political issues managers up late.

Alas for the UCP, the party's issues managers appear not to have managed this issue at all!

Now the CBC's interpretation -- that well-connected elites with insider access cooked up a deal in secret that wasn't in the public interest, motivated only by stubborn determination to put ideology ahead of evidence, and for which there is no accountability or transparency -- will be hard to change.

"If it had been further along and the surgeons had announced it, media would've said Wow, sounds great," whinged Shandro's press secretary, Steve Buick, in an unintentionally damning assessment of the way most Alberta media can be depended upon to fall for UCP talking points, no matter how lame.

Had it not been for the anonymous but public-spirited leaker, what Buick described is likely exactly what would have happened.

Calling people who say otherwise liars, accusing opponents of being NDP plants or trying to boost union membership, and yapping about "fearmongering from the mediscare crowd" isn’t going to help very much, though.

Meanwhile, as yet unanswered is the question of why the Royal Alexandra Foundation, which fundraises for the large public hospital adjacent to the site that is being considered for the proposed private orthopedic hospital, is involved in any way with this deal.

The foundation is supposed to support the Royal Alex and what it calls the hospital's number one priority: "building better health care."

But many donors, surely most of them, give the foundation their money to build a better public health-care system, not to undermine it.

The thought the foundation had some kind of notion it could raise money for its charitable projects by collecting revenue from a plan that would damage our public health-care system is not very reassuring.

Obviously, the Royal Alexandra Foundation has some 'splainin' to do.

Meanwhile, it's helpful to remember that Alberta has been here and done this before. In 2010, a private, for-profit orthopedic hospital in Calgary located in a facility that once was a public hospital specializing in women's health care went broke.

The Health Resource Centre, wrote longtime Alberta journalist Gillian Steward at the time, "was once the focal point of premier Ralph Klein's health-care strategies."

The Klein government even passed special legislation to let private surgical clinics keep patients overnight.

"No one imagined a scenario in which publicly funded Alberta Health Services would go to court in a bid to keep the lights on over the operating tables in an investor-owned hospital," Steward wrote. "No one imagined that AHS would be paying receivership fees in order to keep the doors open. But this is, in fact, what has happened because Calgary's public health-care system is so reliant on private partners."

Well, it's easy to imagine now.

Just the same, the Kenney government would like to repeat this failed experiment all over again.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Ian Stumpf/ Wikimedia Commons​

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