Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, facing renewed accusations Wednesday of a secret agenda to privatize health care, said any changes to the system won't violate universal, accessible care and will have the blessing of the public.
"The one thing that all members should focus on is the bill that we've debated in this house that says very explicitly that Albertans will have a say in the future direction of health-care delivery," Mr. Stelmach said during Question period.
The statement came after Liberal Leader David Swann tried to pin the Premier down on specific changes.
"Will the Premier, in writing, promise Albertans he will not allow doctors to work in both the public and private systems at the same time? Yes or no?" Mr. Swann asked.
"It's most unfortunate but we do have doctors that do opt out [of the public system]and when they opt out, they stay out," was Mr. Stelmach's reply.
The attacks on the Progressive Conservative government stem from a leaked government document made public on Monday.
The document, from a PowerPoint presentation delivered in July, is titled "Alberta's Health Legislation: Moving Forward."
It describes a two-phase plan.
The first phase establishes public confidence by passing laws to create a health charter for patients, a new patient advocate to troubleshoot problem, and a process to ensure the public has a say in future policy decisions. Those three goals were reached late Tuesday night, when the Conservatives passed a bill that revises the Alberta Health Act.
Phase 2 details planned policy shifts, which include allowing doctors to work in the public and private systems simultaneously.
The plan would also consider allowing patients to buy private insurance for a limited range of health services.
There would also be a re-evaluation of which services should be fully funded, partly funded or not funded. Critics say that opens the door to delisting a wide range of publicly funded procedures.
Raj Sherman, the former parliamentary assistant for health turfed from caucus more than a week ago for criticizing his colleagues over problems in the health system, has said the plan was to roll out the policy shifts after the next election, expected in the spring of 2012.
Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky has distanced himself from the document, saying it's not a policy directive, but simply feedback from Albertans.
NDP Leader Brian Mason went after him during Question Period on that, noting that Mr. Sherman has fingered Mr. Zwozdesky as a key figure in the policy document.
"Everyone is denying paternity of this inconvenient new arrival, but I can tell you that the baby has a salt-and-pepper mustache, a cleft in his chin, and a talent for music and languages. The father is sitting right over there," Mr. Mason said, pointing at Mr. Zwozdesky.
"Will you admit you are the person responsible for this secret Tory plan to privatize our health care system!"
Mr. Zwozdesky responded: "Let's be very clear: there is no secret plan, there is no secret agenda, there is nothing on the table whatsoever to do with privatization [and]there's nothing to do with a two-tier system."
It's been a difficult fall session for the Tories on the health file.
The head of emergency services for the Alberta Medical Association says overcrowding in emergency rooms has reached a crisis, with patients suffering, and occasionally dying awaiting care.
Along with Mr. Sherman's ouster, Mr. Zwozdesky's department has butted heads with Alberta Health Services, the arm of the department charged with delivering the services.
Last week, the arm's-length board that runs Alberta Health Services parted ways with CEO Stephen Duckett. It was a contentious issue and a third of the 14-member board has since quit, one saying that Mr. Zwozdesky interfered in the board's autonomy.
Mr. Zwozdesky, however, is urging everyone to move forward. On Tuesday, he unveiled a new five-year action plan with defined benchmarks to increase beds and slash surgery waiting times.
Paul Hinman of the opposition Wildrose Alliance told the house that Mr. Zwozdesky himself is now the problem.
"He's withheld information. In the last week, he's desperately turned to scapegoating his CEO and his parliamentary assistant. The best he can do is wave around a Christmas wish [list]with a [waiting times]target that can never be met," said Mr. Hinman.
"The [Health Services]superboard is crumbling and his reputation is crumbling with it. Even his bureaucracy has lost confidence.
Mr. Hinman turned to Mr. Stelmach: "How long can you stand by this minister and when will your replace him?"
"I'm going to stand with my minister and support him," Mr. Stelmach shot back as colleagues pounded their desks in approval.