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Outside the box thinking can improve health care for Albertans

September 23, 2019
Outside the box thinking can improve health care for Albertans

We can improve Alberta’s health-care system to reduce costs for taxpayers, provide better outcomes for patients and help boost the economy. We just need to be willing to think a little outside of the box.

An expert panel led by former Saskatchewan New Democratic finance minister, Janice MacKinnon, recently released a report that shows Albertans are being overcharged by $10 billion every year for services compared to provinces such as British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. One of the areas Albertans are being overcharged for is the government health-care system.

Alberta spends more per-person on health care than every other province except Newfoundland and Labrador, according to the Fraser Institute. Albertans would save billions of dollars every year if the provincial government brought its health-care spending in line with Canada’s three largest provinces.

We're a high spending province in a high spending country. Whether it's per-person spending or health-care spending as a percentage of the economy, Canada outpaces many of our industrialized peers.

And Albertans are not getting the best results. For example, despite spending $1,000 per-person more than people living in Ontario, Alberta’s wait times, from referral from general practitioner to treatment, is 10 weeks longer.

The reality is that Albertans are being overcharged billions of dollars every year for health care. Patients are losing out because we’re not getting the best results. And our economy is losing out too.

After 13 years of suffering through back problems the Alberta government’s health system couldn’t fix, Tracy Skinner flew to Mexico and received successful treatment. Including  two procedures that her husband Lance received, the Skinners have spent tens of thousands on health care abroad.

The Skinners are not alone. Between 17,600 and 36,500 Albertans (including those travelling with partners) travelled abroad specifically for health or medical reasons in 2017, according to data released by SecondStreet.org. That’s a lot of Albertans who are clearly dissatisfied with the provincial system that’s overcharging taxpayers.

That’s also a lot of money Albertans are spending on flights, hotels and to support jobs abroad that they could be spending at home. While the data is only available nationwide, Canadians spent nearly $3 billion on health care and medical treatments abroad between 2013 and 2017. We should keep this money in our economy. We should also strive to become the premier destination people travel to for health procedures.

Alberta can reduce costs for taxpayers, enhance outcomes and boost the economy by allowing entrepreneurs to play a more active role in health care.

We’re already seeing the benefits of having businesses help hurting Albertans get their MRIs quicker while providing relief for overheated government services.

“For every patient we can have scanned here out of their pocket, or from WCB or from a third party, you know that is one less patient to be scanned at Chinook Regional Hospital,” said Dr. Michael Lane, a  Lethbridge Radiologist . “So hopefully everyone will move through the system faster.”

Saskatchewan moved 34 day procedures from hospitals to private clinics and the procedures became 26 per cent less expensive in the clinics than in the hospitals. Saskatchewan’s private clinics helped lower wait times, are more convenient than hospitals and there is less risk that patients will contract hospital-based infections or the flu.

Other countries have embraced their entrepreneurs to drive better health care.

“Our peer nations like Britain, France and Australia have a sensible mix of public and private services that deliver timely care,” explains Dr. Will Johnston, a family physician in Vancouver. “Here in Canada we are shackled to a clogged system. Access to everything from psychiatry to scans to surgery is just plain bad. People get hurt waiting.”

It’s clear that health-care reform is needed. Some outside the box thinking can help our beleaguered taxpayers, patients and economy.

This column was originally published in the Calgary Sun on September 21, 2019. 

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