Defending public health care in Alberta

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Sandra Azocar is the executive director of Friends of Medicare, an advocacy organization that for the last four decades has been working to defend, improve and expand the public health-care system in Alberta. Scott Neigh interviews her about the importance of public health care, some of that history, and what Friends of Medicare faces today in an Alberta governed by the United Conservative Party under Jason Kenney.

The core argument for public health care over private for-profit health care is pretty simple -- the profit has to come from somewhere. That means that private for-profit health care ends up being less accessible and/or more expensive, and it reduces costs by eroding working conditions and lowering standards of patient care. There is no shortage of horror stories from the United States of people who have access to no health care at all, or to inadequate levels of care, or who acquire care through taking on brutal levels of debt. Because it allows rich people to buy better care, according to Azocar, private for-profit health care is "elitism, plain and simple."

Azocar worked for many years as a child protection worker and she went on to be a vice-president of her union, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. She served on the board of Friends of Medicare for six years, before taking on the role of executive director for the last seven years.

Over the four decades that Friends of Medicare has been doing its work, governments have done many, many different things to chip away at public health care. In the 1980s, extra billing was an important front in the struggle -- that is where doctors charge patients out-of-pocket above and beyond what they receive for a procedure from the provincial government. In the '80s and '90s, it included challenging limits to access to generic drugs, which are much cheaper than their name-brand equivalents. The '90s also saw initiatives in Alberta to introduce fully fledged private, for-profit facilities into aspects of the system. During Ralph Klein's tenure as premier, it included some massive across-the-board cuts to the public system, as well as major reorganzations and the closure of several hospitals. At many points, specific services have been de-listed -- that is, removed from the schedule of procedures that provincial health insurance will pay for. Along the way, food and laundry services were contracted out in healthcare facilities. Again in 2008, there was a massive reorganization of the system that, according to Azocar, threw it into chaos. And much, much more.

The ways that Friends of Medicare has fought back against these measures -- sometimes successfully, sometimes not -- has included all of the methods that such organizations traditionally use. It has lots of town hall meetings. In more recent years, it has also made extensive use of social media campaigns. It maintains a membership list to whom it regularly circulate information and calls to action. It lobbies provincial and federal politicians. It works with progressive think tanks and scholars to produce research and better solutions to the problems that the public health-care system faces. Sometimes it holds demonstrations.

And in doing all of this, sometimes it wins -- whether that was stopping the closure of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, winning a ban on the sale of plasma in the province and preventing the privatization of the blood supply, or defeating Ralph Klein's sweeping reform package in 2005.

As 2019 comes to a close, with Jason Kenney's new UCP provincial government, public health care in Alberta is once again facing serious threats. Based on statements made so far, Azocar says she expects things like a new turn towards private for-profit facilities, de-listing of some services from the provincial health plan, the ongoing entrenchment of privatized seniors care, and more. And indeed since this interview was done, the Kenney government has announced that more than 5,000 frontline health care jobs will be cut as well as a plan for private for-profit surgical facilities.

Despite this, Friends of Medicare has no intention of being content solely with defensive action. It continues to have a long-term commitment to improving and expanding public health care. It will be pushing for a public and universal national pharmacare program, as well as for much more robust commitments to public care for seniors and for people with mental illness.

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Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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