Rural health care cited as top election issue

Farmers at premier’s campaign stop call for more local autonomy when deciding responsibilities of health facilities

STETTLER, Alta. — Like many rural Albertans, Terry Schetzsle of Viking considers health care the top issue as the province enters an election campaign.

Health care is also the No. 1 issue for Mary Readman of Consort and it’s the No. 1 election issue for Dale Nixon of Stettler.

Many hospitals in rural Alberta are struggling to keep doctors and to stay open. Rural residents say it doesn’t mean they have any less need for a hospital. Instead, they feel that their voices are lost in layers of bureaucracy as control over rural health care is centered in the cities.

“The biggest issue is probably health care. It is a real monster bureaucracy that needs to be changed,” Schetzsle said during a barbecue for Progressive Conservative candidate Jack Hayden and leader Jim Prentice.

“They have taken away all our local autonomy. That’s the biggest problem, and it has to come back.”

Prentice set May 5 for Alberta’s election, saying the government needed a new mandate to guide the province through the tough economic times ahead in the aftermath of plummeting oil and gas prices, a mainstay of the Alberta economy.

Alberta’s hospitals have been through many changes over the years. They operated by individual boards, but that switched to 17 health regions, then nine regions, then a super board and then a board with five zones.

In March, Alberta health minister Stephen Mandel announced a move to Alberta Health Services with eight to 10 operating districts.

For Schetzsle, the move to operating districts is a start back to local autonomy and allowing local managers to make decisions.

“If our hospital auxiliary wanted to buy a piece of equipment, which they have all kinds of money to do, they’re not allowed to just do that,” Schetzsle said.

“They’ve got to go through a foot deep worth of paper and maybe wait six or eight months before some minion, which there are thousands in Alberta Health, authorizes this. Somebody in a suit has got to authorize this whenever he feels like it. It is outrageous.”

It’s a story Prentice heard across the province last summer during his campaign to lead the PC party. He said it’s why he has made an examination of rural health a top priority during this election.

“I was quite moved by what I heard over the summer,” he said.

“The gist of it was more local control.… There were incredible stories of the struggles people were having trying to keep rural health facilities working.”

Readman doesn’t know if decentralization will lead to the reopening of emergency services and acute care beds in her region’s Consort Hospital. The community raised $300,000 to build a home for local doctors and then recruited doctors, only to have them move away when Alberta Health Services didn’t reopen the hospital beds.

Nixon said Stettler is lucky to have a good hospital with doctors and a partially open operating room.

While it is not the responsibility of local residents to buy operating equipment, they’re doing so in Stettler.

“It is good of us to do it. It should have been looked after by former governments,” said Nixon, who hosted the Prentice barbecue at his rural residence.

On a different issue, Schetzsle joked that he maybe shouldn’t say it out loud, but he believes Alberta should join the rest of Canada and implement a sales tax to even out the highs and lows that energy prices create in Alberta’s economy.

The provincial budget released March 26 contains tax hikes, spending cuts, a record $5 billion deficit but no sales tax.

“People would hardly notice after the first six months,” said the former auction market owner.

“I think it would help.”

Nixon doesn’t think there is anything wrong with a sales tax or a corporate tax hike if most of the money stayed in the province.

“They should think about it. There is nothing wrong with it. It would bring them a lot of income,” said Nixon, the former owner of a power line construction and welding company with 65 employees.

Prentice said when the budget was announced that any increase in corporate tax would drive jobs out of the province and not create more of them.

“As long as I am premier, I will fight for every last job in the province,” Prentice said during the barbecue.

“We’ll get through a little bit of bad weather.”

Readman was also not opposed to a sales tax, especially if it would pry money out of people who aren’t paying their share of taxes.

“We’re a rich, rich province. There is no reason … why we are struggling along like we are.”

In a later interview, Prentice said agriculture is the foundation of the province but needs to do a better job of competing for international markets.

“We need a lot more processing and agrifood development in the province. That is a step-by-step thing,” he said. “Everywhere you go in the Asia Pacific, they want what we produce. We just don’t do a good job of marketing it and exporting and shipping.”

Contact mary.macarthur@producer.com

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