08/17/2011 12:53 EDT | Updated 10/17/2011 05:12 EDT

Alberta's Mar says his vision of user-pay care does not include ER, transplants

CALGARY - Alberta Tory leadership candidate Gary Mar says his vision of private health care doesn't include patients slapping down a credit card to cover emergency room visits, organ transplants or cardiac surgery.

But when Albertans are leaving the province to pay for less-urgent procedures, something is wrong and politicians need to talk about fixing it, he says.

The former health minister, one of six people running to replace Premier Ed Stelmach, took to the airwaves Wednesday to qualify his position on the hot-button issue of private care's role in the health system.

"I am not talking about emergency rooms that are privately run. I am not talking about organ transplants. I am not talking about cardiac surgery. In fact, as a priority, you want you public system to deal with the very most difficult things," Mar told Calgary radio host Dave Rutherford on CHQR.

"There is a critical role for the public health-care system to deliver the most important priorities, the most urgent care."

Mar cited the example of orthopedic surgery patients heading to user-pay clinics in Ontario and British Columbia as an example of what could be done privately in Alberta.

"It's already happening," Mar said. "Albertans are already making that choice."

He stayed largely away from specifics, but suggested people shouldn't be scared to have a private health-care discussion.

Mar was criticized by opposition parties and public-sector unions earlier this week when he suggested that the province is missing an opportunity because Albertans are going elsewhere and paying for medical procedures.

Critics say private care would create a two-tier system in which all the brightest and best health professionals would be diverted away from public patients who couldn't afford to pay.

In Edmonton for a funding announcement, federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq steered clear of Mar's musings.

"I don't know what he is talking about. I've always stated that I am committed to a publicly funded health-care system — the Canada Health Act," Aglukkaq said. "I am looking forward to working with whoever will be in the position down the road."

Other candidates in the race have already spoken out on their plans to reform a system that eats up well over one-third of the provincial budget but still has patients complaining about long wait times.

Alison Redford has pledged to give patients more access to primary care through health-care teams and family-care clinics.

Doug Horner has promised to work within the system to streamline and save money by redirecting routine procedures now handled by a doctor to nurses and other caregivers.

Doug Griffiths has said health care isn't working if patients are going heavily into debt to get treatment in other jurisdictions that they either can't get or can't get fast enough in Alberta.

Rick Orman wants to eliminate red tape and partner with doctors to direct more of existing funds to critical areas.