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Alberta NDP’s cuts to the growth in health care spending are not enough for Jason Kenney

United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney at a rally in Calgary, on March 30, 2019.

Todd Korol

The NDP reined in escalating health-care costs in Alberta during its four years in power but the system is the most expensive in Canada and the United Conservative Party argues the answer is a four-year cost freeze.

Under the NDP, elected in 2015, health-care spending has risen about 3 per cent a year. The rate of increase is half that seen from 2010 through 2015, when health costs rose about 6 per cent a year. From 2000 through 2010, health-care spending climbed more than 9 per cent a year.

Alberta spends more per capita than any other province on health care, some $7,550 a person in 2018, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Ontario and British Columbia’s costs are the lowest, at about $6,590 per capita.

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UCP Leader Jason Kenney said he would maintain the same level of annual health-care spending as that of the NDP: $22-billion. But he said his party would not increase the figure to cover inflation or population growth.

“I don’t think the answer is always, endlessly, more and more money,” said Mr. Kenney in late March at a campaign event on health care. “Before throwing yet more money into that, let’s focus on outcomes.”

The NDP says the UCP proposal is effectively a spending cut. The NDP plans to keep its spending increase at about 3 per cent a year if re-elected.

“The platform proposed by our opposition would leave a lot of people to fend for themselves,” said Sarah Hoffman, the NDP incumbent in Edmonton-Glenora who served as health minister for all four years of the NDP’s government.

Ms. Hoffman said in an interview that a spending freeze would be felt throughout the health-care system. She pointed to the new Calgary Cancer Centre set to open in 2023, which will require additional funds to operate.

The NDP contained the health budget in areas such as doctor pay, hospital expenses and drug costs, Ms. Hoffman said.

The NDP also brought stability to health-care leadership, she said. There had been considerable turnover and conflict after Alberta Health Services was formed in 2009, with numerous ministers, deputy ministers, board chairs and CEOs.

“People forget how tumultuous it was, not long ago,” Ms. Hoffman said.

Wait times have been highlighted by the UCP as a primary issue. The party cited Alberta Health Services statistics that showed rising wait times for some procedures such as open-heart surgery and knee replacements. Waits for other services such as breast-cancer surgery have fallen. The UCP has proposed, in part, to use private clinics to cut surgical wait times to about 16 weeks.

The median wait time in Alberta was 26.1 weeks in 2018, according to the annual Fraser Institute study that surveys doctors in a dozen specialties, compared with the national figure of 19.8 weeks.

Wait times in Alberta have ticked up only a few days under the NDP, from 25.5 weeks in 2014, the year before the party was elected. It is a 2-per-cent increase, compared with a 9-per-cent increase in Canada during the same period. The NDP slowed the increase in wait times compared with the four years before it came to power, when median wait times rose by 3½ weeks, or 15 per cent, from 2010.

The NDP has promised $450-million over five years to reduce wait times, the third-largest spending proposal in its platform, after child care and reducing drug costs for seniors.

Alberta still has a fundamental problem in health care: The money invested, the most in Canada, has produced middle-of-the-pack health outcomes, said Fiona Clement, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and director of the health technology assessment unit.

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“It’s not where we want to be,” Dr. Clement said.

Savings could be found in the system, she said, as doctors think more and more about “value for money.” But putting a solid lid on spending would be difficult, she added.

“A cost freeze is probably not realistic,” she said.

With economic questions at the fore of Albertans’ minds, the perennial issue of health care is less central in the minds of voters, according to a poll released in March by Angus Reid as the election campaign started. Asked to rank the top three issues, Albertans by far put the related topics of oil and pipelines, jobs and unemployment, and the economy on top. Health care was a distant fourth, tied with the issue of the provincial deficit/government spending.

“There is potentially an explanation that Albertans are more satisfied, or less concerned, with health care than they have been in the past,” said Angus Reid researcher Ian Holliday.

Given the emphasis on questions of economy and energy, Mr. Holliday said it would be a challenge for the NDP to bring attention to its relative accomplishments in health care, such as containing cost increases.

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