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Martin challenges Klein's timing Add to ...

Liberal Leader Paul Martin has again tried to score political points by attacking Alberta's coming health-care reforms, even as the federal government conceded yesterday it had allowed similar concerns in Quebec to languish on the back burner for nearly a year.

Mr. Martin, who faces polls suggesting his party could do poorly in the election, said Alberta Premier Ralph Klein should release a set of major health-care reforms before the June 28 voting day -- not two days after, as is now planned.

He also called on Conservative Leader Stephen Harper to make his position clear on private investment in health care, a move Alberta is expected to promote when it unveils its plan on June 30.

"Am I the only one who finds it odd that Mr. Klein wants to hold on to his report until after the election campaign?" Mr. Martin asked during a campaign stop in Ontario.

It emerged yesterday, however, that the Liberals themselves have put aside public concerns over private investment in Quebec's health-care sector since last summer.

Last July, then-health-minister Anne McLellan wrote a letter to the Quebec government demanding it stop allowing private clinics to bill patients for diagnostic tests such as magnetic resonance imaging and CT scans. The practice also occurs in other provinces, allowing those with money to jump waiting lines.

"Preferential access to health services based on capacity to pay constitutes a serious problem because it undermines public confidence of Canadians in their public health-care system," Ms. McLellan's letter says.

There were follow-up discussions between provincial and federal officials but there was no face-to-face meeting. Health Canada spokeswoman Paige Raymond-Kovach said the federal government postponed discussions at the request of the provinces pending the outcome of federal-provincial talks over health care.

Last year, there were 16 private imaging clinics in Quebec, six in Alberta, four in British Columbia and one in Nova Scotia, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.The prospect of more private health-care investment in Alberta became a campaign issue this week when Mr. Klein said his coming reforms, which he refused to spell out, could be seen as violating the Canada Health Act.

The Liberals accused Mr. Klein of secretly agreeing with Mr. Harper to delay the reforms until after the election. But the Alberta Premier yesterday called the allegations a "crock." He said he hasn't spoken to Mr. Harper for six to eight months.

As for demands he release details before the election, Mr. Klein replied: "I've got nothing to release." He said his caucus is still working on the plan.

Mr. Harper, campaigning in Quebec, said he would hold the Klein government to account over its reforms, but stopped short of saying he would penalize Alberta if the measures violate the Canada Health Act.

"If it's clear that that's what the law would require and those are contrary to any undertakings the province of Alberta has made, we would expect Mr. Klein to act within those obligations," the Conservative Leader said.

The debate took another turn yesterday when Mr. Harper accused Mr. Martin of having advance knowledge of what Mr. Klein was going to do after the Alberta Premier put out a press release Thursday night saying he and Mr. Martin had already discussed health reform.

Mr. Martin had said on the campaign trail earlier Thursday that he would look Mr. Klein in the eye and say "no" to aggressive reforms.

"He's looked me in the eye and basically said that he had no serious concerns. And now this," Mr. Klein's statement said.

Mr. Martin denied the charge, saying: "It's absolutely not true." Ms. McLellan, who is in a tight political race in her Edmonton riding, sought yesterday to play down Alberta's role in the battle, although she also called for Mr. Klein to release his plans before the election.

"The dispute is between Paul Martin and Stephen Harper because Paul Martin has been absolutely clear that he will enforce the five conditions of the Canada Health Act against any province that violates them. I think Canadians need to hear Mr. Harper on that question."

With reports from Brian Laghi in Sherbrooke, Que., and Campbell Clark in Oakville, Ont.

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