EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Jim Prentice ordered a sweeping review Tuesday to fix concerns in rural health care, but opposition members accused him of plowing old ground to avoid having to take action.
"Many rural communities face daunting challenges, particularly when it comes to health care," Prentice said at an announcement in Olds, Alta.
"Challenges such as recruiting and retaining health care professionals and frontline workers, having to travel long distances for care for our citizens, and the need to co-ordinate services and facilities among neighbouring communities."
The panel will be run by Progressive Conservative member Richard Starke and include Allan Garbutt, former president of the Alberta Medical Association.
Rural communities will be studied in three groups: communities under 1,250 people; communities between 1,250 and 2,500; and finally communities of 2,500 or more.
The panel is to report back on the first group to Health Minister Stephen Mandel within 90 days. No timeline was announced for the final two groups.
Prentice, however, promised a swift response.
"This is not going to be a lengthy process," he said.
However, opposition members noted the issue has already been studied extensively in the recent past.
Wildrose health critic Heather Forsyth said a Community and Rural Health Planning Framework was completed in 2010, and updated in 2012.
There are also 132 individual geographic breakdowns available online, titled primary health care community profiles.
"There has been no shortage of reports, reviews and studies," Forsyth said in a news release.
"We don’t need 90 days to watch more government studies gather dust on the shelf. We need action."
NDP health critic David Eggen said the study is a political move by a PC government that needs to retain or win back rural support ahead of a spring election in 2016.
"It's clear they are trying to stall for time," said Eggen in an interview.
"People in rural areas know that they've seen their hospitals and senior centres closed.
"That seems to be what the Tories plan was, and has been, for a long time."
The 2012 election saw the Tories lose seats to the Wildrose party, mainly in rural areas, particularly in southern Alberta.
Under former premier Alison Redford, the Tories promised during the 2012 election campaign to open up 140 family care centres, or FCCs, around the province to deliver more access to care.
The government launched three pilot projects, but sputtered after that.
On Tuesday Mandel, at the announcement with Prentice, confirmed the FCC project will not go forward, but said it may return in a different form.
"We're not going to throw out the concept, but the way it was put together before just wasn't acceptable to a tremendous number of players, and we're not going to continue that," said Mandel.
Critics had concerns with how the FCCs would mesh with the existing primary care networks, which are run by physicians.
Alberta has been struggling in health care since it merged all the health regions under one superboard, titled Alberta Health Services, in 2008.
Since then, there have been documented reports of organizational confusion, turnover in the executive suites, generous pay and severance for senior members, intimidation of doctors who speak out, jammed emergency wards and long waiting lists for care.
A recent report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information found that Alberta's $18-billion health budget represents the highest per capita medical spending in the nation while delivering results that rank in the middle of the pack.
Earlier this month, former AHS CEO Stephen Duckett said Alberta's oil wealth has proven to be as much a curse as a stimulus.
Duckett said so much petro-money sloshing around coupled with a PC party unchallenged in power for four decades has translated into reckless politically-driven health spending that does little to advance the cause of good, cost-effective care.
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