It’s hard to believe anyone in the United Conservative Party could find a silver lining in their government’s disastrous mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. With emergency rooms and ICU units filled far beyond capacity, Alberta’s doctors are now preparing to implement the triage protocols that inform which patients get treatment and which ones die.
This gruesome reality has attracted the attention of the New York Times, which surely isn’t how Jason Kenney imagined his “best summer ever” ending when he was flipping pancakes at the Calgary Stampede back in July.
But for some UCP backbenchers, this generational crisis in the health-care system is apparently just the opening they were looking for to advance the idea of more private involvement in the system.
On Facebook, Lac Ste. Anne-Parkland MLA Shane Getson suggested the real issue isn’t his government’s suicidal “Open for Summer” strategy but instead the way Alberta Health Services responded to its inevitable consequences. “For this kind of money, and the amount we pour into the system, I think we need to be getting more bang for our buck,” he said. “ICU bed levels that were available for the public dropped unacceptably low coming into cold and flu season and a prediction of the (fourth) wave … the wave hit, but AHS didn’t staff the beds adequately to meet their own predictions?”
This is of a piece for the UCP, which seems determined to find new and innovative ways to demoralize this province’s front-line health-care workers. Never mind, for the moment, the fact this statement is in direct conflict with Kenney’s assertion the fourth wave was unpredictable and unknowable. And let’s try to set aside the ghoulish calculus here, which clearly suggests the best way to handle a pandemic is by letting it rip through the population and letting ICU beds handle the fallout.
It’s the financial calculus that’s most telling, since staffing up those ICU beds would come at a substantial cost borne by taxpayers. It’s conspicuously off-brand for a government that has consistently complained about the high cost of health care and repeatedly tried to cut the pay of the doctors and nurses. And it doesn’t align with its goal of reducing public-sector spending.
Why, then, is Getson complaining about the value Albertans are getting for their health-care dollars? It’s almost certainly because he thinks there are better ways — and perhaps better places — to spend them. “I’ll be asking a few more questions about our system,” he said in another Facebook post, “and providing some suggestions that we may want to discuss to make sure Albertans (are) getting the service they need because they are paying dearly for it.”
He’s not alone. Jason Stephan, the MLA for Red Deer-South, suggested the number of ICU beds in the United States is somehow proof we’re not getting value for our health-care spending. “Why, with this massive amount of money, has AHS only produced between 300 and 400 working ICU beds for a population of over 4.4 million, on a per capita basis less than half the worst of the lowest of any of the U.S. states?”
Stephan neglects to mention this additional capacity would come at an enormous cost, with per capita health-care costs in the United States nearly double those here in Canada. If the UCP wants to talk about efficiency and the need to get a better “bang for our buck,” the United States is the last place it ought to be looking. According to a 2020 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, “The gap in health administrative spending between the United States and Canada is large and widening, and it apparently reflects the inefficiencies of the U.S. private insurance-based, multi-payer system. The prices that U.S. medical providers charge incorporate a hidden surcharge to cover their costly administrative burden.”
But maybe introducing more private activity in the health-care system isn’t actually about reducing costs and improving efficiency. Maybe it’s about shifting where those dollars are spent — and whose pockets they ultimately flow into. That would certainly align with the UCP’s worldview, not to mention the financial interests of some of its supporters. And it might help explain why Kenney stood by idly as his province’s health-care system careened towards collapse. After all, if you want to rebuild something in a different image, you have to break it first. In that respect, at least, the UCP’s management of the pandemic has been an unqualified success.
If there’s any good news here, it’s that the UCP is too busy trying to dig itself out from under the weight of its own incompetence to do anything else. But the trial balloons being floated on Facebook by its backbench MLAs are still worth our collective attention. The stealth privatization of health care has long been the holy grail for Conservative politicians in Canada. And Kenney is nothing if not a man of faith.