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Alberta patient charter not legally binding

EDMONTON - Alberta's health minister says he's bringing in a patients charter that commits the province to ensuring everyone gets timely care as part of a sweeping overhaul of legislation.

EDMONTON - Alberta's health minister says he's bringing in a patients charter that commits the province to ensuring everyone gets timely care as part of a sweeping overhaul of legislation.

But anyone seeking redress under such a charter can't go to court.

"Albertans want to see some results right now, so we are taking action," Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky said Wednesday, as he announced he has accepted 15 panel recommendations that will form the basis of a revised Alberta Health Act.

Critics were quick to label the proposal misguided navel-gazing from a government that doesn't know how to solve front-line health problems such as long surgery wait lists, overcrowded emergency rooms, and bed shortages.

The changes will be introduced — and are expected to be passed — in a bill in the fall session of the legislature, which begins Monday.

The revised act will streamline various pieces of legislation, some of which have regulations that conflict with one another, and is aimed at making sure Albertans have a say in how the system is run.

The central proposal is the charter, which would stipulate that patients have a right to expect timely access to care, access to information, and have the right to complain without fear of retribution.

Patients would also have responsibilities under the proposed document. They would be expected to make healthy choices, learn how to use the system effectively, and respect the rights of health providers.

Those who seek redress on a grievance could go through numerous channels, including a health advocate who Zwozdesky also said will be part of the changes. But the final say would still rest with the government or the health minister.

Zwozdesky accepted the panel recommendation that stated the charter "not be subject to or be the basis of litigation within the court system."

When asked if it might be misleading to trumpet a document with no legal redress as a charter, Zwozdesky said he was simply passing along ideas that were proposed to the panel.

He also said the charter is still in its early stages. "This is not something to be rushed," he said.

Opposition Alberta Liberal health critic Kevin Taft labelled the charter idea "vacant." He said the proposed advocate has no arm's-length authority and will be used as a bureaucratic shield at best and a political scapegoat at worst.

The revised act "will be filled with platitudes that have no legal standing and have no recourse," said Taft.

"(When) this minister and this government have the nerve to come forward with something as vacant as a health charter, it tells you they're desperate."

Opposition New Democrat health critic Rachel Notley labelled the changes a "smoke-and-mirrors attempt to distract Albertans from the genuine health-care services that the government is not providing."

The changes are the culmination of a year-long review and consultation with members of the public and with health professionals.

Government legislature member Fred Horne and an eight-person panel of experts made the 15 recommendations after touring the province for four months and hearing from 1,300 citizens and specialists. There were also 1,500 web-based surveys and written submissions from more than 80 organizations.

Zwozdesky also accepted on Wednesday the recommendation that the public have more input on changes to health policy, though the final decisions would still rest with the government.

He accepted enshrining in the act's preamble Alberta's commitment to publicly funded health care and to making sure the health system will "put people first."

Horne has said that while it should seem self-evident a health system would put people first, the culture has in the past put the focus on professionals, administrators and programs.

The proposed act will be enabling legislation, giving the government wide latitude to shape the rules.

Dave Eggen of the lobby group Friends of Medicare said that's bad news for those who don't want to see further privatization under the public-care umbrella.

"This new Alberta Health Act will not help to stem the tide of privatization that we see occurring every day in the province of Alberta," said Eggen.

"If anything, it will help to increase privatization down the road."

Not so, said Zwozdesky.

The new act "is not about anything to do with health-care privatization," he said.

 
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