With new figures that show Alberta still spending nearly 20 per cent more than the national average on health care, the provinceâ€™s physicians say the Prentice government has to allocate scarce dollars more wisely.
Dr. Richard Johnston, president of the Alberta Medical Association, said the prospect of a fiscal crisis due to depressed energy prices might finally create an incentive for the provinceâ€™s health-care system to find innovative ways to achieve better patient outcomes for less money.
â€œI think weâ€™re at the breaking point in terms of the proportion of money we can devote to health care if weâ€™re going to support other aspects of society,â€� Johnston said.
â€œThereâ€™s more to life than building hospitals and creating beds.â€�
A study released recently by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) indicates Alberta will spend nearly $4,700 per capita from public coffers on health care this year, a jump of 2.1 per cent from 2013 and more than any other province besides Newfoundland and Labrador.
When CIHI adjusted those numbers to reflect Albertaâ€™s relatively young and healthy population, the provinceâ€™s allocation of tax dollars stood out even more dramatically from the rest of Canada, spending some $1,300 or 1/3 more than the national average per person based on 2012 data.
The instituteâ€™s number crunching indicates that Alberta spends a third more on hospital care and 13 per cent more paying its physicians to care for each resident when compared to the mean of other jurisdictions in the country.
But it also spends 19 per cent less than the national average â€” just 7.5 per cent of its health care dollars â€” on long-term care for its ailing seniors.
â€œThose marked differences may partly reflect Albertaâ€™s younger demographic and higher wage costs,â€� said CIHI vice-president Brent Diverty, â€œbut they may also be indicative of policy choices by government about where to allocate money.â€�
While the province may have higher workforce costs, incoming health minister Stephen Mandel said in an e-mailed statement that his government has work to do in curbing Albertaâ€™s comparatively higher health-care costs.
â€œThere is no doubt we need to be more efficient and spend smarter,â€� Mandel said.
â€œIâ€™m focusing on finding the right balance and funding the system in a way that manages costs and also provides quality health care.â€�
While Mandel does not have a wealth of experience on the medical file, Johnston said the former Edmonton mayor is open to innovation.
â€œMy impression is he did a good job as mayor, that he didnâ€™t have a lot of patience with bureaucracy or people making excuses.â€� he said.
â€œI think there might be a good opportunity to try some new things.â€�
On the physician compensation front, for example, Johnston said the AMA is willing to discuss moving away from the fee-for-service model for patients with complex needs to flat fees that would give doctors an incentive to keep these large users of health care dollars out of hospital.
In a chapter of a soon-to-be-released book on heath care spending in Canada, the former chief executive of Alberta Health Services is doubtful the province can harness the runaway horse that is health care spending.
In his book, Bending the Cost Curve in Health Care: Canadaâ€™s Provinceâ€™s in International Perspective, Stephen Duckett writes that Albertaâ€™s oil wealth and a stagnant political culture where one party dominates have combined to thwart innovation and efficiency in health-care spending that this year has swollen to over $19 billion.