New-look Alberta Tories’ toughest tasks yet to come, particularly in health care

Jim Prentice isn’t the only provincial politician with a monumental task ahead of him.

Sure, he has to win a seat in the legislature, while undoing the misdeeds of the Redford era, while also restoring the trust of Albertans caused by those misdeeds.

All huge tasks.

And Prentice has gotten to a lot of the low-hanging fruit.

Planes are gone. Licence plate changes are gone. Bad ministers are gone. He’s set to make a major announcement to deal with school infrastructure in Calgary.

Surely parents across Alberta are hoping they’ll cash in on some of the education goodies soon enough.

But enough about Prentice.

It’s his new health minister who has some equally hard work ahead of him.

Stephen Mandel brings to the health portfolio a track record of leadership as three-term Edmonton mayor.

Whether his decisions were lauded or lamented by voters, his three terms in the mayor’s chair proved he could take a large organization, set a clear course and achieve his aims.

And if there’s any ministry that needs that right now, it’s health.

Whether it’s wait times, allegations of political interference and doctor intimidation, queue jumping, concerns over executive compensation, or a bloated bureaucracy, the health system needs someone to right the course.

Our health budget eats up nearly half of government spending, and the province routinely gets shrinking returns on health investments.

The province spends more per hospital visit than elsewhere in the country — almost $2,000 more than the national average.

The money spent doesn’t add up to the quality of care one would expect.

Access is an issue. Wait times, too.

Mandel and Prentice both have raised concern about a lack of decisions being made by people at the local level.

On Friday, Mandel told reporters what many have been thinking for a long time.

“There’s no reason to allow us to say we can spend the kind of money we’re spending and not have the finest system in the country, or really the world. We should not strive for mediocrity,” said Mandel.

“I don’t think a system that’s costing this much money should have that happen so we need Alberta Health Services to answer the questions. Why is it taking so long and what are the problems?”

Attempting to create a better, more efficient system has been the undoing of previous health ministers, and the ballooning budget and top-down structure of Alberta Health Services present big challenges for Mandel to overcome.

But unlike planes and licence plates, the problems facing our health system can’t be undone with a wave of the hand.

Can he fix them?

For political reasons, Prentice needs him to.

But it’s not merely political for the rest of us.

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