By Drew Barnes
Liberals or Conservatives.
Starbucks or Timmy’s.
Oilers or Flames. Or (if you must), maybe the Leafs.
There’s a lot that Canadians can endlessly debate. But if there’s one thing on which we all agree, it’s that our healthcare system simply isn’t up to snuff.
Everyone seems to recognize the issue, from the federal and provincial governments; from left-leaning healthcare unions to right-leaning academic think tanks.
While these ideologically warring clans seem fixated on assigning blame, politics-as-usual is not actually helping patients waiting in emergency rooms for hours on end.
The statistics paint a pretty bleak picture.
According to the Fraser Institute, national healthcare wait times hit a median of 27.4 weeks in 2022, the longest ever recorded.
In Alberta, the problem is worse. Here it takes 14.1 weeks (three and a half months) to be referred from a general practitioner to a specialist, and another 19.2 weeks (nearly five months) to receive specialist treatment.
That’s a total of more than eight months to get done which took just two-and-a-half months back in 1993.
These wait times come with a damning cost paid in pain and suffering, as well as an explosion in addiction to prescribed painkillers.
It also comes with a financial cost. According to a recent study, wait times cost Canadian families and our economy $3.6 billion in lost wages and productivity. With 1.2 million Canadians stuck in line, this is a problem that now affects us all.
Here in Alberta, the healthcare issue has been repeatedly studied, from the Mazankowski Report in 2002 to the 2019 MacKinnon Report.
Despite all of this research, every government from the Progressive Conservatives, to the New Democrats, to the United Conservatives, have offered the same solution: increase spending. In fact, both the UCP and NDP are currently campaigning on continued spending increases.
There is an old saying: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
The fact is, more money will not fix the problem. Out of 30 developed countries with universal healthcare systems, Canada already spends the most. Here in Alberta, total provincial spending on healthcare has increased from about $3.8 billion in 1997 to $24.5 billion today.
Even with the country’s youngest workforce, Alberta’s population is aging. And even with billions in resource revenue regularly dumped into the black hole of rising costs, our healthcare model is failing patients.
So what are we going to do about it?
It’s time for conservatives to get back to doing what we do best: turning crises into opportunities using the most powerful economic tool at our disposal: the free market.
Leading up to the pandemic, each year thousands of Canadians voted with their feet and chose to leave our country to seek medical treatment elsewhere.
Top medical tourism destinations for Canadians include: the United States, Costa Rica, India, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey.
That’s right. People fed up with wait lists are getting on a plane and going to Turkey.
Statistics Canada estimates Canadians spent nearly more than $2 billion from 2017-2019, seeking quicker access to medical services like organ transplants, dental procedures, fertility and cancer treatments, and orthopedic surgeries. In addition, each year thousands of Albertans chose to seek medical imaging and technical services in other provinces.
As our healthcare wait lists grow, the total dollar value that is drained from our economy through medical tourism can only increase.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
What if we could keep these patients here, spending their money here, creating jobs here, and growing our economy here?
What if we started drawing international and out-of-province patients here for affordable and superior care?
The good news is that opening the door to a competitive medical tourism industry doesn’t need to cost Alberta’s taxpayers a single dime.
In fact, it would draw billions in investment simply by clearing out the kind of bureaucratic red tape that restricts economic growth and prevents our province from reaching its full potential.
While the politicians can endlessly debate the funding model for healthcare, the truth is that competition has always been a part of ours and every other universal healthcare system. So let’s embrace it.
Ideology aside, patients here and around the world have the right to seek treatment on their own terms. Right now they are choosing countries like Turkey. I want them to choose Alberta.
That’s the kind of free market solution that offers real opportunity.
Drew Barnes is the former MLA of the Medicine Hat-Cypress Constituency in southeast Alberta