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They’re Off! Alberta NDP Offers an Election Campaign Preview

The party’s plan to overhaul family health highlights an area of UCP vulnerability.

David Climenhaga 22 Feb 2023Alberta Politics

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at Follow him on Twitter at @djclimenhaga.

You could argue that the Alberta NDP’s 2023 provincial election campaign started unofficially but in earnest last week with its announcement of a plan to ensure that more than a million Albertans will be able to see a family doctor quickly, close to their homes.

“Our vision for primary care is called Family Health Teams,” Opposition Leader and former Alberta premier Rachel Notley said at a news conference.

She defined Family Health Teams as practice groups including multiple family doctors as well as Nurse Practitioners, Registered Nurses, Licensed Practical Nurses, mental health therapists, pharmacists, social workers, dietitians, community paramedics, community health navigators, physiotherapists, midwives, speech language therapists and others.

If her party forms the government after this spring’s elections — which most pundits now predict will take place as scheduled on May 29 — the NDP will create a transition fund to immediately begin hiring 1,500 non-physician team members into existing clinics, while work proceeds to open 10 family health clinics across the province by next year.

“We’ll consult with Albertans about where those should be,” Notley told the news conference, “but Lethbridge, and Red Deer and the Bow Valley are obvious candidates right off the start.”

All three are ridings outside Edmonton and Calgary that desperately need health-care solutions, but it is also probably no coincidence they are electoral districts where the NDP has a chance to win seats.

Making this announcement now seems like a sound strategy, although not one free of risk.

It reinforces the NDP’s primacy on the health-care file and the high level of trust it enjoys on that issue while reminding voters of the United Conservative Party’s failures through the pandemic.

And to beat Premier Danielle Smith in this election, the NDP needs to keep the conversation focused on health care.

Moreover, just as UCP social media was starting to accuse the Opposition party of just complaining, offering no substantial policies, the announcement provides one — complete with a detailed booklet for voters setting out how the NDP proposes to make it happen.

The risk is that whenever a political party makes its plans specific, the details are going to draw fire — including from friends, some of whom may not like parts of the plan.

On the whole, though, this seems likely to work for the NDP.

Just as important, it will probably work against the UCP, whose recent health-care announcements focus on the ideologically driven (privatization, detox as the only solution to addiction), the unworkable (recruiting international nurses during a worldwide shortage of nurses) and the meaningless (appointing a new mental health advocate).

This stream of announcements, often vague, suggests a government is willing to throw money at health care, at least until the election is over, but with no real plan to solve the problems dogging the system. It just wants to look busy.

Before introducing Notley, NDP health critic David Shepherd offered a harsh assessment of the UCP’s performance.

“Today, access to family medicine is sadly out of reach for hundreds of thousands of Alberta families,” he said. “This loss of access to primary care is driven by two things: First, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. But second, the open hostility of Danielle Smith and the UCP to family doctors and other health-care workers.”

“It’s almost exactly three years since the UCP launched their war on family doctors,” he reminded listeners. “They tore up their contract, they cut their pay, they bullied them online and in person, forced them to take on mountains of new paperwork just as the pandemic was slamming into Alberta. As a result, in the last three years many have chosen to leave our province, retire early, or have left the profession altogether.”

By contrast, the NDP proposal gives the impression it has given serious thought to finding solutions to the health-care crisis and has a clearly thought-out plan to implement them over the next several years.

It would probably be a mistake under these circumstances for the Smith government to respond reflexively with a claim that anything the NDP proposes will cost too much, but it’ll be hard for them to resist the reflex.

Meanwhile, the NDP’s big announcement for the week contrasts nicely with the UCP’s: The RStar scam, in which the UCP would give a $20-billion royalty holiday to reward multibillion-dollar oil and gas corporations for cleaning up abandoned wells they’re already legally obligated to pay to clean up.

Getting back to the NDP announcement, Notley said “the development of Family Health Teams goes hand-in-hand with the Alberta NDP plan to launch the largest health-care recruitment campaign Alberta has ever seen.”

“Part of our offer to professionals will be stable and rewarding workplaces where you can focus on providing health care and spend less time on paperwork and administration,” she commented. “Family Health Teams will make every single part of Alberta health care a better place to work by helping patients sooner and taking the pressure off of our hospitals and ambulances.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Politics

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