Premier not learning from past, says HSAA President Elisabeth Ballermann

"Prentice has not learned from Alberta’s history. He is content to continue to shift the tax burden from corporations and “the one per cent” to regular Albertans, while ravaging the services on which we rely." — Elisabeth Ballermann, HSAA President

Edmonton (26 March 2015) — Elisabeth Ballermann, President of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA/NUPGE) warns Albertans that by cutting public services, especially health care, Premier Prentice is repeating mistakes made by previous leaders. These mistakes will become costly for generations to come. The opinion piece was published in the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal on March 24. 

At this critical point in Alberta’s history, there’s a lesson for Premier Jim Prentice from another Conservative leader — Winston Churchill.

The former British prime minister said: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Unfortunately for Albertans with health issues in the coming year, the premier has learned nothing from decades of Conservative rule. Here we are, facing another predictable dip in oil prices and he proposes exactly what previous premiers did: Slash spending.

Previous cuts have thrown our health care system into chaos — EMS code reds, long wait times at emergency rooms, years-long wait lists for surgeries which are then frequently cancelled, hospitals constantly overcapacity and buildings falling apart. Any initial savings are quickly lost in trying to clean up the mess.

It is cold comfort to be able to say “I told you so” when I look back at an opinion column I wrote in March 2013 in the Calgary Herald. Almost every word of warning I wrote then could be cut and pasted here today, because history is repeating itself — only this time, the problems are bigger.

In 2013, health care faced a budget cut of $1.58 billion over three years by failing to keep up with population growth and inflation. That could have paid for 2,846 front-line full-time employees over those three years.

In 2010, the Ministry of Health and Alberta Health Services set targets for the length of stays at emergency departments. The targets were to get tougher every year, with the aim of reaching national benchmarks by 2015.

AHS figures reveal that since the budget freeze of 2013, performance has actually declined. Not one hospital in Calgary or Edmonton is meeting the 2013 targets, let alone those for 2015.

Far from having the “best public services in the country,” as Prentice claims, performance in emergency departments is falling further and further behind the rest of the country.

Last week’s figures show that Edmonton’s Grey Nuns Hospital admitted only 11 per cent of patients within eight hours. The target is 90 per cent. The best performance was 42 per cent at Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary — a drop from 65 per cent from the same period in 2013. Edmonton’s Stollery Children’s Hospital fell from 65 per cent to 29 per cent.

If that isn’t enough pain for Albertans, the premier is signalling major additional cuts in his next budget (five per cent, plus no provision to keep up with the projected four per cent growth in population and inflation).

Nine per cent of the Ministry of Health budget is $1.609 billion. That could pay for 13,514 full-time front-line workers. Or buy — and staff — hundreds of ambulances, or MRI scanners.

Cuts of that magnitude will inevitably lead to a further decline in the quality of care. Two years ago, I said: “You simply cannot make the kinds of savings the government is proposing by seeking efficiencies in administration …What those who have ordered these cuts fail to grasp is that we cannot ‘lay off’ our patients or ‘downsize’ the elderly.”

I pointed out the folly of selling our nonrenewable resources at fire-sale prices, of allowing corporations to enjoy soaring profits while their taxes were slashed, of the government failing to meet its own royalty targets, and of a flat tax on personal incomes that benefits only the very wealthy.

By its own account, the government shows that it gives away about $ 11 billion per year in revenue that it could collect — and still be the lowest tax jurisdiction in Canada.

Yet, in spite of saying “everything is on the table,” Prentice has ruled out a return to progressive income taxes and any increases to corporate tax or royalties, the lowest in Canada, and in the world.

Prentice has not learned from Alberta’s history. He is content to continue to shift the tax burden from corporations and “the one per cent” to regular Albertans, while ravaging the services on which we rely.

In 2013, I asked: “How many sick and injured Albertans will be asked to pay the bill for decades of fiscal folly with their health or even their lives?”

It is appalling that we have to ask this question again.


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE


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