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Never mind that Premier Alison Redford faces a party leadership review in November, her government is grappling with billions in flood reconstruction costs and a massive provincial deficit – or that her Finance Minister has just begun a tussle with Alberta's public sector unions over his plan to cut pension benefits.
Now her Progressive Conservative government has angered the province's snowbirds.
As Alberta's retired-with-means cohort plans their winter retreats to Arizona, California or Hawaii, a political tempest is brewing over the issue of their health coverage. The Canadian Snowbird Association said hundreds of its members have written to Ms. Redford and her Health Minister this year asking Alberta to join other provinces – including British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador – and allow residents to be out of the country for seven months, or more, without risking their provincial health care coverage.
Alberta currently allows an absence of up to six months – which was the norm across Canada until recent years, when provincial governments started being lobbied by snowbirds. A letter from the premier's office to the association last month said her government's policies are already "fair and flexible," and noted exceptions can be granted in some individual circumstances. She wrote that her government is not considering a change to the current policy, added that the Premier's schedule doesn't permit her the time to meet with the association.
"I don't know why they wouldn't want to meet," said Rick Thorpe, a former B.C. cabinet minister who is now the Western Canada director for the association.
It was only on Tuesday – after Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne's office was contacted by The Globe and Mail – that the association said a meeting with the minister was scheduled for early next month.
Mr. Thorpe said allowing vacationers to stay out of country longer is win-win for both the government, and retirees with trailer homes in the desert. When a resident is absent from the province, the government will offer health-care reimbursements of up to $100 a day if emergency care is needed. The association argues these rates are less than the costs if emergency took place in-province – and that extending the period that snowbirds are allowed to reside outside of Canada could actually save the government money.
The government has been preoccupied with the recovery following the June floods that forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 Albertans. But Mr. Thorpe said his association has been writing the Alberta government on this issue since last year, and the policy has to be addressed – as people are travelling much more than they were even a decade ago. If someone spends the winter in the United States, he said they risk losing their health-care coverage if they take another out-of-country trip at any other point during the year.
Having had its first "call to action" rebuffed, the Canadian Snowbird Association is asking its members to try the letter writing campaign again. The association will also meet with the Official Opposition Wildrose party on the issue.
"What all snowbirds have done is they've worked hard … they've helped build the success of the province or jurisdiction, and quite frankly, they're entitled to enjoy their life," Mr. Thorpe said.
"Seniors tend to vote a lot more than younger people, and that's just a fact," he added. "But this isn't about politics."
But it appears the Progressive Conservative government is paying attention to the political clout of the 118,000 Albertans who spend months escaping the dry cold each year. In an interview late Tuesday, Mr. Horne said he recognizes more and more Albertans are spending the winter months in the southern United States.
"It's not an urgent issue in our health-care system but I realize it's important to a growing number of people."
A policy change, the Health Minister said, is "not something that I would rule out."