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UCP prioritizes businesses that run care homes over the workers inside them

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Willow Square Continuing Care Centre. Image credit: Government of Alberta/Flickr

It's very hard to resist the temptation to juxtapose the Kenney government's response to the plight of underpaid front-line health-care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and the troubles faced by well-heeled owners of private continuing-care facilities.

When it comes to the former, Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party government seem determined to do whatever they can to keep federal funds on the table to top up the salaries of health-care workers on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 from actually getting to them.

According to the recent report by Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Senior Economist David Macdonald, Alberta has only accessed $12 million of the $335.8 million in federal top-ups for low-paid essential workers in Alberta.

"Alberta has, by far, the highest amount left on the table as it accessed almost nothing from this program," Macdonald noted, adding that Saskatchewan isn't far behind.

You're never going to hear a reasonable explanation from the Kenney government for why this is, of course. Its opacity is legendary -- and intended to serve a political purpose.

In such circumstances, it's reasonable to speculate: the UCP wants no part of anything for which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could take any credit, as would certainly be the case with this program.

It's also important, however, to remember that during his successive campaigns to lead the Progressive Conservative and United Conservative parties, Kenney promised when he was in the company of business groups to make Alberta a lower-wage jurisdiction. It is reasonable to assume he wasn't just talking about the public service.

Paying health-care workers more now, while they're risking their lives to save us from COVID-19, isn't going to help the government's plan to reduce labour costs when the pandemic eventually fades away.

Meanwhile, though, the owners of private seniors' care and continuing-care facilities -- which have been hotbeds of rampant COVID infection, especially although not exclusively, in the private sector -- apparently have found the costs of responding to this situation to have an unfortunate impact on their bottom line.

Readers need not take my word for this. Here's Richard Gotfried, UCP MLA for Calgary-Fish Creek and the chair of the government's panel reviewing continuing-care legislation: "I have heard loud and clear from the continuing-care sector that remaining in compliance with public health orders can be costly."

To this type of COVID-caused economic hardship -- which readers can be assured is considerably less painful than that suffered by many front-line health-care workers -- the government responded quickly, announcing last week that it would immediately cough up $68.5 million in support for continuing-care homes.

Indeed, Gotfried's quote above came right out of the news release announcing the infusion of cash. In the same passage, he went on to say: "This funding will help operators further protect those most at risk of severe outcomes."

It's not quite clear, of course, if Gotfried was talking about the patients and residents in continuing-care homes -- nowadays dangerous places to be -- or the owners of these facilities.

The government certainly tried to spin its spending as an effort to "help operators pay for increased staffing" among other costs such as cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. In other words, for the good of all.

It is reasonable to suspect, nevertheless, that much of this support will pass directly through to corporate bottom lines, and from there to premiums for shareholders and bonuses for top executives. Because that's the way things are supposed to work in Kenneyworld.

"Organizations operating during the period of March 15, 2020 to March 31, 2021 will be eligible," says the government's news release. (Emphasis added.)

Also included in the subsidy program are contracted home-care services, hospices, and private addiction and mental health treatment centres.

93% of per-capita COVID-19 direct spending in Alberta comes from Ottawa

Something else worth juxtaposing, I suppose, is the absolute level of support for the fight against COVID-19 coming from the federal and provincial levels of government.

Returning to Macdonald's CCPA report, "Albertans are receiving the highest level of per capita (COVID-19 direct) spending compared to any other province, worth $11,200 a person."

Importantly, he reported, 93 per cent of that comes from Ottawa, either in direct funding or from transfers to provinces. "Federal supports amount to $10,400 a person in Alberta, the highest per capita federal support level of any province by a fair margin. Albertans actually receive $1,200 more per person from the federal government than any other province."

To adapt child-care centres and schools to respond to the pandemic, he added, "Alberta has mostly just spent the federal transfers meant for these areas."

"Despite the overwhelming federal support for the province, Alberta has the lowest debt and the lowest per capita amounts raised in taxes of any province. It receives the most, on a per capita basis, from the federal government but has spent among the least on a provincial GDP basis," he wrote.

Don't expect to hear anything about this, of course, either from our provincial government or most Alberta media during the run up to next fall's cynical and constitutionally meaningless equalization referendum.

Well, you may see federal expenditures counted as a percentage of provincial GDP, which would make it appear that Albertans got a smaller percentage than Canadians in, say, Nova Scotia. But, as Macdonald's report observed, "this is simply because the GDP, per person, is much higher in Alberta than in Nova Scotia."

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.

Image credit: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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