By Jim Gray – Published in the Edmonton Journal
Premier Rachel Notley and her government face a considerable challenge in bending down the cost curve on health care while improving health outcomes. The 2017 provincial budget reflects the severity of this challenge as health-care costs continue to consume a larger portion of government expenditures.
Chronic disease and injuries are placing tremendous demands on health care and they represent 90 per cent of the illness burden in Canada. Chronic disease impacts every community and almost every family in our country. This massive epidemic must be tackled head-on to bend the cost curve, protect our health-care system and to improve our quality of life.
Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, addictions and preventable injuries are all contributing to this epidemic. Although we have won some battles on chronic disease, we are losing the larger war on this enormous social problem.
Childhood obesity and physical inactivity are on the rise, mental illness and addictions stubbornly persist, and there are far too many people who experience needless injuries. These illnesses and injuries are filling our hospitals, impairing our quality of life and they are hurting our economy through reduced productivity.
At present, the Alberta government is spending only about one per cent of the total health-care budget on the prevention of chronic disease. This level of funding is inadequate to tackle a problem that represents 90 per cent of the health-care burden.
The good news is that chronic disease is largely preventable. Five risk factors account for the vast majority of chronic disease including physical inactivity, unhealthy eating, tobacco use, alcohol misuse and traumatic childhood experiences. There are proven strategies to reduce these major risk factors, but we are not investing enough in such initiatives.
Wellness Alberta proposes that the Alberta government increase its investment in chronic disease and injury prevention from one per cent to two per cent of the health-care budget over the next three to five years. We also recommend protecting these precious funds by creating a stand-alone Wellness Foundation that reports directly to the Legislative Assembly — just like the Heritage Savings Trust Fund. Unless these funds are sheltered by legislation, they will almost certainly be consumed by the growing demands for health-care treatment.
The Foundation will invest only in proven evidence-based strategies that are focused on primary prevention. This means tackling risk factors upstream long before people become ill. It means putting a fence at the top of the cliff rather than sending ambulances to the bottom.
Effective interventions are available to tackle these risk factors head-on. These strategies involve schools, communities, parents, employers and the health-care system itself. Similar government foundations exist around the world and they have produced meaningful results.
Roy Romanow urged all Canadian governments to increase funding for chronic disease prevention over a decade ago when he chaired the Royal Commission on Health Care. Don Mazankowski made a similar recommendation in his report to the Alberta government in 2002. Alberta’s auditor general also called upon the province to take strong action to reduce chronic disease in a report he tabled last year. Unfortunately all of this good advice has gone largely unheeded.
We urge the government to rise to the challenge of chronic disease and injury by making a meaningful investment in prevention. Albertans deserve first-class protection from chronic disease and we deserve first-class health care that will be there if and when we need it.
It’s time to take wellness off the waiting list. It’s time to reduce demands on health care and to keep more people away from the hospital. It’s time to create a culture of wellness in this province. It’s time to make Alberta better.
Jim Gray is the chairman of Wellness Alberta — a coalition of over 130 organizations, institutions and governing bodies that collectively represent over three million Albertans.
© Edmonton Journal
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