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Happy Thanksgiving! Would Tories praising public health care please stop trying to privatize it!

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Stephen Mandel

Happy Thanksgiving! With a case of a "potential contagious illness" in an unidentified Edmonton hospital last night, I guess we can be thankful we have a public health care system, even if it faces a serious funding crisis and is housed in crumbling facilities.

This, at any rate, is the party line from Conservative federal and provincial politicians as they keep to keep us from panicking about the emergence of, um, potential contagious illnesses like, you know, Ebola, in Canada.

This party line is summed up almost perfectly in the words of a senior health region manager in British Columbia: "The spread that we’re seeing in Africa is probably caused by their health system characteristics. They don't have a well-funded public health care system like we do."

So would somebody please explain why both federal and local conservatives of various stripes are working so hard to undermine and underfund our public health care system? Am I missing something?

The feds, of course, have made it clear they aren't about to agree to another 10-year health accord, like the one Liberal prime minister Paul Martin signed onto in 2004 and which expired last spring. Instead, they imposed a formula under which, after 2017, health care funding increases will be restricted to around 3 per cent a year, the better to let inflation whittle away at universally accessible public health.

The Harper Conservatives are also working hard to resist pressure for a money-saving, health-preserving national pharmacare plan because … well, because the God of the Almighty Market, and Milton Friedman his angel, forbid it.

Meanwhile, here in Alberta, the provincial government is trying to sound as if it's whistling an upbeat new tune on government services now that Jim Prentice is unelected premier, but if you listen carefully, it sure seems as if unelected Health Minister Stephen Mandel is still droning out the same old Tory health care privatization mantra.

On Saturday -- just before news of the Edmonton Ebo… um, potential contagious illness case, broke -- Mandel told an Edmonton journalist it would be "irresponsible" for the province to build a replacement for the capital city's deplorable, crumbling Misericordia Hospital without the province undertaking an "actuarial study" to figure out where new health care facilities need to be built.

Say what? "Actuarial: Relating to statistical calculation, especially of life expectancy."

Well, maybe he just used the wrong word. We all do from time to time. Maybe what Mandel had in mind was an "actual study," which would be an interesting degree of candour in the case of health care policy making in this province – where studies, from time to time, are ginned up to justify increasing privatization of health care services, and then sometimes dropped if they turn into a political hot potatoes.

Don Mazankowski, Dave Broda, c'mon down!

As for the life expectancy of the Misericordia Hospital itself, now located across the street from the massive West Edmonton Mall in the city's west end, the 45-year-old facility appears to have exceeded it. At any rate, it is famous for flooding when it rains, hot and cold spots worthy of a haunted hotel, infestations of flies evocative of the same movie genre, frequently jammed elevators, and a hole in the floor of its obstetrical unit notorious for being frequently awash with bodily fluids.

When he made his interesting statements, Mandel -- who faces a by-election in nearby Edmonton-Whitemud on Oct. 27 that will either cement or finish his career in provincial politics -- was reacting to a public rally organized on Thursday by the provincial NDP outside the hospital, at which participants demanded a new one.

"I think it's a bit irresponsible to say let's just build because something has to be built," Mandel was quoted as saying in a local newspaper.

So he conceded, at least, that something needs to be built to replace the west end hospital -- which, to complicate matters, is part of the public health care system but technically run by the Roman Catholic Church.

However, he went on, "let's not make a mistake by just deciding it's the best thing in the world to build a hospital" -- which was the moment my personal privatization alarm started to silently vibrate.

By the time he'd said "there’s lots of interesting and very eclectic and dynamic ideas to build things that are going to be what's great for our citizens, and that's what we should look at,” the lights had started flashing and the buzzer was audibly going off.

According to the newspaper report, “outpatient services” and “bed systems" were among the things Mandel thought Albertans should be rethinking, instead of building big old-fashioned hospitals like the massive one just opened in south Calgary that's now Alberta Health Services' main centre in case a certain potential contagious illness turns up in Southern Alberta.

But the klaxon really started screaming when Mandel said that, "historically, hospitals were the centre of everything. Now, if you look at hospitals, people are doing so many more day surgeries. How do we do that in a different way, a more efficient way?"

You know, like the privately owned Health Resources Centre that provided hip and knee surgeries in Calgary… Oh, wait. Didn't it go broke in 2010?

And where do we send someone who hops off a plane from West Africa with a potential contagious illness and turns up feeling poorly at the West Edmonton Mall? To an eclectic and dynamic little private clinic?

Yeah, we should be thankful we've got a great public health care system. Future generations won't thank us if we let the privatizers get their hands on any more of it than they already have.

As for Mandel, at the moment he has no democratic mandate, which is why he's seeking one on Oct. 27.

So a good place for voters who live in Edmonton-Whitemud to start might be to ask him if what he has in mind with all those potential eclectic little facilities is in fact privatization.

If it is, or even sounds as if it might be, it shouldn't take a political actuarial study to indicate the appropriate response on Oct. 27!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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