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Gary Mason

Take the politics out of health care? Good one! Add to ...

When the Alberta government released its five-year health action plan this week, there was a whiff of desperation enveloping it.

The government’s impressive mishandling of the health-care file has been highlighted in recent weeks by a flurry of resignations and a high-profile firing at the organization charged with delivering medical care in the province.

Governments across the country have been watching this train wreck with morbid fascination. While Alberta’s Conservative Party has certainly authored much of its current troubles, its predicament demonstrates what a political death trap health care can be. In the absence of a sensible, well-conceived plan to deal with the growing medical needs of an aging population, a government can be plunged into crisis almost instantly.

As the one in Alberta is now finding out.

The extent of the problem wasn’t really known until a couple of weeks ago when a leaked e-mail from the president of the Alberta Medical Association emergency medicine section said the system was drifting towards a “catastrophic collapse.” As damning, Paul Parks later revealed he’d been warning the government of the situation for two years but his cautions were either ignored or brushed off with form-letter replies.

After that, Tory MLA Raj Sherman, parliamentary secretary for health and a working emergency room doctor, broke ranks with the government over the deteriorating, and in his view shameful, situation in the province’s emergency wards.

All this was a just sideshow to the main act.

When Stephen Duckett, president of Alberta Health Services, was pursued last week by a group of reporters wanting to ask him questions about the growing health-care crisis in the province he refused to co-operate. Why? He was too busy eating a cookie. Of course, the moment was chronicled on camera, soon thereafter to become a nibbling sensation on YouTube and a political embarrassment for the government.

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky demanded Mr. Duckett’s head, which he received. But in the process he also got the resignations of four members of the AHS board, furious over the firing and the “political interference” it represented.

This brings us to Tuesday, when, in response to the burgeoning impression that the health-care system was in chaos, the government released a five-year blueprint pledging to reduce waiting times, among a number of other measures. It had the feel of a document rushed into the public realm to quell growing dissent and create the impression the government does have a plan.

Among the many problems with which Mr. Zwozdesky needs to deal is the status of his Alberta Health Services super-board, which now seems to be in full revolt. It was formed in 2008, ostensibly as a cost-saving measure to replace nine regional health authorities. It was supposed to carry out the government’s strategic priorities in health care but in an arm’s-length arrangement.

It sounded wonderful, in theory. This independence would allow an organization composed of top health-care experts to take a long-term view of health policy and not make decisions based on election cycles and political expediency. Strategy would be formulated around sound principles and relevant, dependable data.

It would take the politics out of health-care policy.

That’s a good one.

This utopian notion is, sadly, unachievable in today’s environment. As long as governments pay for health care, they will want control over the bodies charged with delivering it. And as long as governments get blamed for problems in the system, they will want ultimate authority over entities responsible for managing it.

Right now, there isn’t a policy area in the country more intertwined with politics than health care. The administration of health policy will never be truly at arm’s length from government because, as we say, the public’s view of who should be held accountable when there are problems in the system will always be government.

The public in Alberta has the right to be angry with political leaders who ignored all the warning signs portending the health-care crisis now on full display in hospital wards throughout the province. And the government may be held answerable for that unconscionable oversight come the next election.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe


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