Big Idea #4: Keep Albertans healthy by re-embracing public health care … and the practice of public health

There is nothing more important and foundational to the lives of individuals – and to the prospects of families, societies and economies – than health. Simply put, if we are not healthy, everything else falls apart.

This is why alarm bells should be ringing in Alberta. Under the UCP, the system that is supposed to protect our health is falling apart. In fact, it’s being deliberately pulled apart.

Like many conservatives before them, the UCP is clearly trying to make the system fail so they can justify privatizing it.
But, even more ominously, the UCP seems to be in the thrall of extremists who reject the scientific foundations upon which good health care and modern medicine is based.

As leader of the NDP, and eventually Premier of the province, Gil would keep Albertans healthy by re-embracing public health care AND the practice of public health.

Fix Primary Care

The foundation of a healthy, functioning health care system is primary care. We can’t have a healthy community or a healthy economy if individuals don’t have reliable access to family doctors.

Unfortunately, under the UCP, our primary care system is now on life support. Under both Jason Kenney and Danielle Smith, the government has demonized doctors and they’ve cut funding so deeply that many doctors can’t afford to continue operating their practices.

The results are as troubling as they are predictable. The number of family physicians in the province has fallen far behind population growth. Literally hundreds of thousands of Albertans don’t have a family doctor. And the situation is set to get worse: 1 in 5 family doctors say they are thinking about retiring, leaving the field or leaving the province.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Every other western province now pays their family physicians substantially more than Alberta. In just the last six months, BC has attracted nearly 1,000 new family doctors with its new funding model, developed in conjunction with doctors and other stakeholders. It can be done!


  • Gil would work with doctors and other stakeholders to develop and implement a funding model that would allow Alberta to attract and retain more family doctors. Gil’s approach would be to provide physicians with separate funding streams for income and overhead.
  • Gil would spearhead the creation of a province-wide system of primary care clinics that would be operated entirely within the public system. These community primary care clinics would be one-stop-shop, multi-disciplinary hubs where patients could access all the health professionals they need, including: family physicians, nurse practitioners, dieticians, social workers etc. All the staff would be paid a salary, as opposed to fee-for-service, including the physicians.
  • Gil would also fund more spaces in our medical schools to train more doctors here in Alberta. He would also support programs that provide incentives for more of those new grads to practice in Alberta outside the two major cities.

Address the Staffing Crisis

In addition to the shortage of family physicians, the Alberta health system has an acute shortage of literally all other health professionals, including registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses and paramedics.

Emergency rooms in Alberta were forced to close for more than 38,000 hours in 2023. In almost cases, these service disruptions were caused by staffing shortages. And the communities left without service were mostly in rural Alberta.

At the same time, acute care hospitals in both large cities and smaller cities are regularly running at over 100 percent capacity – with long waiting times and “hallway health care” becoming the norm, rather than the exception.

These problems are the legacy of decades of underfunding and neglect. As a result of austerity policies, Canada now only has 2.6 acute care hospital beds per 1000 people, far below the OECD norm of 3-4 beds per 1000 people. Alberta is even worse with only 1.8 beds per 1000 people.

But beds can’t be operated without staff – and we don’t even have enough staff to operate the number of beds we currently have. Last year, Alberta Health Services estimated we are currently short 6,000 registered nurses – and with an aging workforce, more nurses leaving the profession and too few seats in nursing schools, the situation in getting more dire by the day.

As Premier, Gil would take the following steps to address the staffing crisis in health care:

Respect – Our health care system has already functionally collapsed. It’s only being held together by sheer force of will by dedicated frontline workers, who have been going above and beyond the call for duty, especially in the context of the pandemic. Despite this fact, the UCP has gone out of its way to disrespect these very workers. Gil would bring respect back to health care workplaces.
Pay Increases – The people who work in our healthcare system are motivated by a desire to help their fellow citizens and provide the best quality of care to their patients. But they all have bills to pay, and those bills are getting bigger and bigger. It is completely unacceptable for our provincial government to expect our frontline health care workers to continue working for wages that don’t keep up with inflation, especially when literally all other provinces are offering substantial wage increases. In order to retain and attract the workers that we need to keep our healthcare system healthy, Gil would budget for annual wage increases that keep up with inflation – and for wages increases that exceed inflation for occupations where shortages are particularly acute.
Nurse-Patient Ratio – The quality of care in our healthcare facilities depends on having enough staff to deal with the patient load, which is growing in both numbers and complexity. When there are too many patients and too few staff, quality of care suffers and our frontline workers suffer “moral distress” because they can’t provide the level of care that they want to provide and which they were trained to deliver. Gil would address this problem by following the lead of the BC NDP government, which introduced clearly-defined nurse-patient ratios — and provided $250 million to hire new nurses so those ratios could be met.
Acute Care Beds – Our healthcare system has been in an almost constant state of crisis ever since the “era of austerity” of the 90s and early 2000 led to a dramatic reduction in acute care beds in Alberta hospitals. Gil would set a target of moving Alberta out of the basement and closer to the OECD average of 3-4 acute per 1000 people. This would require the expansion of existing hospitals and the construction of new ones in growing areas of the province, including the construction of a long-overdue hospital in south Edmonton.
Health Care Workforce Strategy – Given the acute and ongoing staffing crisis that is crippling our health care system, it is imperative that the Alberta government develop a comprehensive health care workforce strategy that identifies the problems and very clearly and intentionally lays out the solutions. The plan needs to address multiple issues, including: training (we need more seats in nursing and other programs); renumeration (we need to be able to attract and retain skilled staff); and working conditions (we can’t keep driving health care workers away from their professions and/or out of the province). Gil would make the development of a health care workforce strategy a top priority, both as opposition leader and Premier.

Bring Back Public Health

Health care in Alberta is buckling partly because we don’t have enough people to work in the system, but also because demand on the system is increasing as our population gets sicker and less healthy. In order to turn things around, we need to both increase the supply of staff (doctors, nurses, allied health professionals) and reduce the demand from patients.

In this regard, it’s crucial for Albertans and policy makers alike to connect the dots between the UCP’s abandonment of public health and the growing wave of sick and disabled Albertans.

Public health is the branch of medicine that deals with prevention and keeping the whole population healthy through science-based rules and collective action. Examples of public health include regulations and standards to keep our food and water supplies safe. Other examples of public health include vaccination campaigns and protocols for insolation and masking in the face of outbreaks and pandemics.

While family medicine and acute care in hospitals are what most people think about when they think of health care, the truth is that public health measures like sanitation and vaccination have been far more instrumental in extending life spans and improving the quality of life for people around the world. In fact, no other medical intervention has saved more lives than vaccination. And we’re not talking about thousands of lives … we’re talking about hundreds of millions, even billions.

These facts underline just how shocking and unacceptable it is that the UCP has essentially abandoned public health in Alberta. Control of this important branch of our health care system has essentially been hand over to the anti-science, anti-vaxxers and anti-mask extremists who pull Premier Danielle Smith’s strings.

This became evident when the UCP government censored its own health officials who, in the fall, wanted to tell Albertans about the scientifically-proven benefits of getting flu and Covid shots. It was also evident when the UCP passed legislation putting decisions about public health in the hands of politicians instead of public health experts.

In order to appease her anti-vax base, Smith has effectively abolished the position of Chief Medical of Health in Alberta – effectively neutering the whole public health apparatus in the province. Smith’s war on public health is also at the heart of her decision to dismantle AHS. Never again does she want to have a coordinated and effective provincewide strategy for dealing with public health emergencies in Alberta.

The UCP’s assault on public health, along with their clear attempts to muzzle and discredit public health practitioners, has already fueled growing vaccine hesitancy, which is at the route of recent measles outbreaks. But, this is likely just the start. Smith’s fetish of putting the “freedom” of her extremist followers ahead of the freedom of other Albertans to remain healthy, will have escalating negative consequence for the health of Albertans.

This issue is particularly significant in the context of Covid, which is not “over,” and which is not “just the flu.”  It’s also particularly significant to workers – because workers who work directly with the public are disproportionately at risk of Covid infections and reinfection. As Statistics Canada has shown, about 13 percent of people who get Covid will get “Long Covid” – and many of those people will become disabled and/or unable to work.

Given the significant negative impacts – for both individuals and the economy – associated with the UCP’s utter capitulation to the “convoy crowd,” as opposition leader and Premier, one of Gil’s top priorities would be reassert the importance of public health.

Specifically, Gil would do the following:

  • Launch an aggressive and ongoing public education campaign about the value and importance of public health to counter the lies and misinformation being spread by anti-vax and anti-science groups, including the UCP.
  • Tear up UCP’s anti-public health legislation and return responsibility for public health to public health experts.
  • Hire an independent Chief of Medical Officer of Health, with the resources and mandate to build and maintain a public health system that prioritizes people over politics.
  • Introduce enforceable standards for door air quality, including standards for monitoring, ventilation, high UV and air filtration.
  • Provide funding and support for necessary upgrades, especially in K-12 schools and advanced education facilities which have proven to be the areas of highest spread for airborne diseases, including Covid.
  • Reintroduce masking guidelines in schools and health care facilities when the risk of infection is high – because there are no effective therapeutics and the best way to keep Albertans, especially school-aged children, safe from Covid is to make sure they don’t get it in the first place.
  • Require employers to provide and pay for appropriate PPE (eg N-95 masks).
  • Amend the Occupational Health and Safety Code to make the right-to-refuse unsafe work a collective right that can be used by workers in the context of pandemics and airborne illness.

Other measures to protect the health of Albertans

Reverse UCP measures

Gil would reverse all measures taken by the UCP that adversely affect the health of Albertans. This would include: their attacks on the health care options available to trans youth; their willingness to allow clinics to charge extra fees; their use of “motel medicine”; their expansion of private surgical clinics; and their privatization of certain ambulance services.

Make Long-term Care Public

Given the abysmal record of for-profit long-term and continuing care providers during the pandemic, Gil would start the process of bringing ALL such facilities into the public system. The focus of these facilities should be the care of patients, not the profits of investors.

Make Home Care Public

Gil would also bring homecare fully into the public system. The current private-public patchwork is leaving hundreds of thousands of Albertans without the support they need. It is also allowing the exploitation of workers (most often new immigrants and racialized women) and defeating the purpose of homecare, which is to allow sick, aged or disabled Albertans to continue living with dignity and independence in their own homes.

Support Universal Pharmacare and Dental Care

The federal government is in the process of introducing national Pharmacare and Dental Care programs that will eventually be scaled up to cover a wide range of prescription drugs and dental services. This is a major accomplishment that will benefit all Canadians, including Albertans. Even Alberta’s two largest employer groups, the Calgary and Edmonton Chambers of Commerce, have endorsed these policies, saying they will help attract workers to Canada, while at the same time increasing program efficiency and reducing costs for businesses. Unlike Danielle Smith, who has said she would block the programs in Alberta, Gil would work with the federal government to facilitate implementation.

Mental Health

Gil would reverse the UCP’s move to hive off mental health services and shoehorn them into a new service, called Recovery Alberta, which focuses primarily on treatment for addictions – because not all mental health issues are related to addictions and because the UCP’s “Alberta Model” for addictions treatment is an ideological fetish, not an approach rooted in evidence or experience. With input from all stakeholder groups, Gil would commission a top-to-bottom review of mental health services in Alberta – because, while the UCP approach is inappropriate, the status quo is also not acceptable.

Alberta Health Services

Finally, Gil would reverse the UCP’s plan to splinter AHS into four different entities. This is a mean-spirited and ill-advised initiative aimed at disempowering health care professionals and making it easier for the UCP to impose ideological control on the system. In fact, it should be seen for what it is: a mechanism to further the UCP’s political goal of neutering public health and promoting privatization. Gil would maintain a provincewide health authority because it provides important economies of scale and because, as demonstrated during the pandemic, it allows us to move more quickly and effectively in times of emergency (like during pandemics)