A warning to premiers everywhere: Health care has become the crisis that simply won't go away for Ed Stelmach's Alberta government.
Since alerted last month to what doctors say is a crisis of overcrowding, government has met with the physicians raising the alarm, turfed a rogue member of its party and bought out an unpopular health czar. Now, it has met another hurdle - a filibuster, led by opposition MLAs hoping to bring in legally binding caps on emergency-room waiting times.
Beginning Wednesday evening, the four-member caucus of the upstart Wildrose Alliance delayed the ending of a session through a filibuster, hoping to push through an amendment by independent Raj Sherman - a doctor ousted from the ruling Tory party this week - to legislate caps on waiting times. Debate went throughout the night.
"For me, this is like a shift in the ER, so I got my sleep here before I showed up," Dr. Sherman said enthusiastically in an interview Thursday morning. His reason for speaking out and losing his spot in government is simple: "We've got a health-care crisis on our hands."
Under the procedure of the Alberta Legislature, debate was cut off at 4:30 p.m. Thursday and will resume on Monday, at which point it can continue to run around the clock. To force a vote, the majority-holding Tories would need to provide 24 hours' notice. They've not done that, wary of the political backlash.
The outrage stems largely from the Stelmach government's decision two years ago to merge 12 small health boards into one super-board. Critics call it a failure. It was the super-board's president, Stephen Duckett, who was forced from his job this week. But the government is sticking by the board model itself.
An olive branch was extended by Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky on Thursday, as he suggested returning some unspecified duties to local entities and reconvening some of the smaller boards as panels under the larger organization. The government is adding up to 360 acute-care beds and 1,400 continuing care beds.
It wasn't enough for the opposition, which wants set targets.
"It's a bit of a waiting match," Wildrose Alliance MLA Rob Anderson said Thursday evening, maintaining the PC party has "bungled it up" on health care.
Dr. Sherman is hoping to set two targets for ER waiting times: four hours to treat and release less seriously ill patients, and six hours to stabilize and admit serious cases to other areas of the hospital. Mr. Zwozdesky supports benchmarks, but said Thursday "I don't think it's appropriate to enshrine in law."
Liberal Leader David Swann insists it can work, saying legal targets in the United Kingdom have led to a reduction in waiting times. "Everybody up the line starts to be accountable for not meeting those [targets]" Dr. Swann said.
Mr. Zwozdesky said the government was willing to wait out debate, but may "move on" soon - suggesting it would give notice and cut off debate.
"The debate has to go on and I expect that it will go on for a while yet," he said. "At some point you have to move on, and I expect we will."