Klein opens new front in the attack on Medicare

But Ottawa's defense lacks crediblity without new commitment to health spending, HEU tells MPs An announcement by Alberta Premier Ralph Klein that his government plans to contract out surgical procedures to the private sector has ignited a new national debate on Medicare's fate in the next millenium. In a rare television address Nov. 16, Klein told Albertans that he will introduce legislation next spring that opens the door to regional health authorities to contract with privately operated facilities for surgical services. Klein argued that the move would provide more options to Albertans, reduce waiting lists and comply with the principles of the Canada Health Act. His critics weren't so sure. "Waiting lists across Alberta are problems caused by the (Alberta) governmentís irresponsible closing of hospital after hospital in the mid-1990s. To then use scarce taxpayer dollars to fund for-profit hospitals to attempt to solve their own problem is deplorable," said Alberta New Democrat Leader Pam Barrett. "Opening private for-profit hospitals is the absolute, dead-wrong way to reduce waiting lists and improve our health system," added Barrett. "It is easier, cheaper and more efficient to reopen hospital floors and beds across the province." The Prime Minister and Health Minister Alan Rock have also criticized Klein's proposal, but HEU president Fred Muzin says Ottawa's credibility gap on the Medicare question is growing. In a Nov. 23 presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, Muzin told MPs that years of cuts to transfer payments to the provinces have undermined the federal government's ability to defend Medicare against Klein and other privatizers and have led to increasing out-of-pocket health care expenses for Canadian families. "If this government is serious about challenging Ralph Klein's plans for two-tier health care," says Muzin, "the next federal budget will include a restoration of transfer payments to the provinces for health care and other important social programs." Muzin also urged the feds to exclude health, education and social services from the WTO discussions in Seattle. "We already have serious concerns that Klein's privatization push could lead to incursions in public health care by American corporations under NAFTA," says Muzin. Klein's announcement sparked a week-long series of developments on the Medicare issue: • Nov. 19 The International Monetary Fund releases a report calling on the federal government to abandon its plans to use 50 per cent of the budgetary surplus to reinvest in government programs and instead use the bulk of the surplus for tax cuts and debt reduction. IMF-ordered reforms have led to the gutting of health and social programs and food and fuel riots throughout the developing world. •Nov. 23 A proposal by Reform Party health critic Keith Martin (Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca) to introduce a parallel, private tier of health care for wealthier Canadians has his colleagues running for cover. The proposal is not adopted. Martin becomes justice critic in January. • Nov. 23 A group of prominent Canadians urge the Prime Minister to take decisive action to defend Medicare from privatization. Shirley Douglas, daughter of Medicare founder Tommy Douglas, Tom Kent, architect of cost-shared Medicare, former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney and CLC president Ken Georgetti tell Chretien he must intervene immediately to prevent contracting out to for-profit hospitals. They also call for a restoration of transfer payments and the exclusion of health and social services from all trade agreements.