It doesn’t really matter who provides it, as long as it’s publicly funded’ – right?

“Assisted living” – if you can’t afford it, you won’t get much assistance, regardless of your needs. You’re as likely to find an elevator in a tent!

Do you think public health care is safe in Alberta now that the government of Ed Stelmach has changed its tune and has significantly increased the budget for health services?

Getting you to think that is certainly the idea. Indeed, it’s obviously the hope of Mr. Stelmach, Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, their colleagues in cabinet and caucus, their political advisors and all their friends and relations. Judging from media coverage since the Feb. 9 budget and the views of the proverbial person in the street, they seem to have succeeded, at least for the time being.

But listen carefully to what they have to say and you can hear the whisper of the same old same old. That is, the same old same old privatization song, the same old same old roadmap to a two-tier health-care system.

For example, just this morning, Premier Stelmach, Mr. Zwozdesky and Stephen Duckett, the CEO of Alberta Health Services, the Alberta government’s public health services arm, were all quoted as saying – in the Edmonton Journal’s summary – that “it doesn’t matter to people how the care is delivered, as long as it’s publicly funded and done well.”

Later this morning, Mr. Zwozdesky said it again in almost exactly the same words on a right-wing talk radio program broadcast from Calgary. If the results are good and the price is right, the health minister told his radio listeners, “it shouldn’t matter where it gets done.”

What you’re hearing is a talking point – the Alberta government’s No. 1 health care talking point by the (frequent) sound of it.

You need to listen carefully because talking points like these don’t actually say what they sound like they’re saying. You’ll notice that these government officials never use the term “public health care,” which is what they want you to think they mean.

They’re not actually saying public health care because they don’t really mean public health care. They talk incessantly about publicly funded health care – that is, health care that taxpayers pay for, but with money that ends up in the pockets of private companies – because “publicly funded” is conservative code for “privately delivered.”

As Alberta’s New Democratic Party put it a few days ago in their “What People Want” report on health services in Alberta, “by specifying ‘publicly funded,’ the government is creating a market for the private profit-based delivery of health services. Private delivery means reduced accountability. It also means taxpayer dollars are used to pay shareholder dividends.”

Ultimately, this idea also opens the door to two-tier health care, to for-profit use of the same facilities, no matter what promises are made about the arrangement in its early days.

Now, the NDP rendered a useful service to the people of Alberta – indeed, of the entire English-speaking world – by cataloguing a few of the common deceptive phrases used by advocates of privatization of health services to mask their intentions.

The bad news, in a sense, is that this short but helpful English-Market Fundamentalist phrasebook was authored by the NDP, since by nature it is a partisan document and will therefore tend to be dismissed out of hand by many outside the normal Knee-Dip constituency.

This is a pity, because the report does contain some sound, commonsense ideas for the protection and improvement of public health care, here and elsewhere, as well as its invaluable guide to deceptive health debate terminology.

Given the frequency of our encounters yesterday with the little “publicly funded” deception, some of the other misleading terms explained by the Knee-Dippers’ manual are also worth noting down for future reference. Here are three more to watch for:

Choice. Choice, of course, doesn’t mean choice. Actually, it means the opposite. With choice, as you grow old, you will have the choice of living in lots of different places with lots of different services – all of which will come at a huge cost to you, and none of which you will be able to afford. In Alberta, there’s a shortage of government funded long-term care for seniors, and the government aims to make that shortage worse. That way, you can go and live in an expensive, privately run “assisted living” facility, where there’s a fee for everything. As the NDP says, “a senior requiring long-term care that is inaccessible has no choice.” If you can’t afford choice, of course, you can choose to live in a cardboard box.

Aging in Place. The Alberta government has a strategy that will encourage “aging in the right place.” If you can only afford to live in that aforementioned cardboard box, well, that’s the right place for you, pal. As the Knee-Dips explain, “the term is meant to sound empowering, but refers to facilities that charge out of pocket for the full range of elder care.” This achieves one of the key goals of the market fundamentalist agenda: transferring wealth from the middle class to the extremely wealthy. Remember, money that goes into the pockets of well-heeled nursing home operators is money that won’t be inherited by the children of middle class Albertans. The Conservatives, and their ideologically identical opponents in the Wildrose Alliance, thinks that’s exactly the way it should be.

Community based. Remember how Alberta Hospital Edmonton was going to be replaced by community-based care? Community based case means care delivered outside hospitals. In the case of the mentally ill, that often means the streets (see cardboard boxes above). In the case of the elderly, community based means care delivered at great cost to the people who require it and their families. The NDP cites such examples as private for-profit clinics and those so-called assisted-living facilities. But it may also mean your home, as your mother and father grow too old and too ill to care for themselves.

Several times in the past few weeks, the Alberta government has publicly admitted that citizens of this province have lost confidence in the health care system and promised to take action to restore their trust.

If they really mean what they say, they could do worse than to adopt the New Democrats’ eminently sensible recommendations on reducing the use of misleading language in the health care debate. To wit:

  1. “Publicly release all planning documents relative to health care reform.”
  2. “End the use of deliberately misleading language.”

Well, good luck with seeing either of those things happen.

We’ll know that they mean it about restoring our trust when we stop hearing carefully phrased promises about “publicly funded” health care.

2 Comments on "It doesn’t really matter who provides it, as long as it’s publicly funded’ – right?"

  1. Berry Farmer says:

    Excellent post. I had not caught onto the "publicly-funded" rhetorical trick. I'll be listening for it now.

    Months ago, when I had lunch with my MLA, he told me that Minister Liepert would be replaced with a much softer seller and Albertans would be much happier. Mr. Liepert and Mr. Duckett would be made to appear as the evil twins… and we would go from there.

    It appears this strategy has been in place for at least half a year. They threw us off guard and now they are drawing us in with a softer sell. We are so happy to be rid of Mr Liepert and to have Mr. Duckett in the background, they can now use nuance and finesse to get us.

    Quite a strategy.


  2. Holly Stick says:

    Right on cue, a Calgary economist speaks up:

    "…But as governments are having to pour more tax dollars into the public system, there is increased risk of a middle-class tax revolt and reduced appetite for the rising cost of an entirely publicly-funded system, Emery suggested.

    "Lower-income Canadians would choose to have a less generous public health-care system," Emery argues…"

    Like hell we would.


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