EDMONTON — A coalition of groups is calling on Alberta's cash-strapped government to spend millions of dollars on a new organization that would encourage people to live healthier lives.
Wellness Alberta wants the province to create an independent foundation and fund it with an annual grant of $60 million that would increase to at least $200 million in three to five years.
The coalition says the Alberta Wellness Foundation would work to promote physical activity and reduce unhealthy eating, tobacco use, alcohol abuse and injuries.
Calgary oilman Jim Gray, chairman of the coalition, said the foundation would pay off by taking pressure off the hard-pressed health-care system, which already eats up almost half of Alberta's budget.
"We are confident that the premier and the health minister will make the improved health of Albertans a top priority by committing to the creation of a provincial wellness foundation," Gray said Tuesday.
"Alberta needs a well-financed, effective and sustainable wellness foundation to reduce the burden of chronic disease and injury. We simply cannot afford not to invest in disease prevention."
The coalition said the government could fund the wellness foundation through general revenue or with a special wellness tax on tobacco, alcohol or sugar-sweetened drinks.
It hopes the government will announce the foundation before the end of the year and allow it to begin operating before the end of 2016.
Groups endorsing the coalition's proposal include Alberta Blue Cross, the Alberta Medical Association and the cities of Edmonton and Calgary.
Dr. Chris Eagle, former CEO of Alberta Health Services, said the practical measures being proposed by the foundation would reduce the growing demand for expensive health services.
Alberta Health's budget for this fiscal year is forecast at more than $18 billion.
Eagle, who is a member of the coalition, said for too long the government has put off making significant investments in prevention.
"We have to invest in doing things in promotion and prevention to stop the ongoing wave of people getting ill — diabetics, people with heart attacks," he said.
"Minor things would change their ability, their health, their need for emergency treatment."
Eagle said the government faces a tough decision on where to find the money for the foundation, but said there is growing public support for the proposal.
Health Minister Sarah Hoffman was not immediately available for comment.
Last month, Finance Minister Joe Ceci said the province was on track for a record $5.9-billion deficit this year as the oil crunch hits families and businesses.
Ceci is to present the NDP government's first budget on Oct. 26.
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