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Alberta’s UCP government is pushing ahead with its surgical expansion plan with new deals that will see more procedures contracted to private ophthalmology clinics.

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At an announcement Friday, Health Minister Jason Copping said chartered surgical facilities in Edmonton and Calgary will provide about 35,000 cataract and other eye procedures under new contracts with Alberta Health Services (AHS) in the coming year — a 25 per cent increase from previous contracts that delivered 28,000.

In Edmonton private clinics, at least 10,000 cataract surgeries are expected to be completed in the fiscal year, and the government promised in a news release to add 5,000 to that number “as soon as possible.”

Copping, speaking at a laser eye clinic in Calgary, said when people wait too long for surgery, it erodes confidence in public health care.

“As more surgeries are performed in clinics like this one, capacity and space are freed up in hospitals to perform more complex surgeries, including complex cataract and retinal procedures plus ear, nose and throat surgery,” he said.

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While contracting surgeries to private facilities isn’t new, the UCP government aims to ramp up private contracts up in an effort to cut down costs and the waitlist for surgeries, which as of mid-April Copping said sat at 73,200.

Critics have said the amount moves to privatization that will ultimately fail to improve publicly funded capacity over the long term.

The plan to put more Albertans under the knife in private clinics was put on hold during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but after the removal of former AHS CEO and president Dr. Verna Yiu in early April, Copping said the change in leadership will speed up the health-care system revamp. In February, Premier Jason Kenney promised to double private procedures paid for with public dollars.

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The government estimates private clinics performed about 45,500 surgical procedures from April 2020 to March 2021. Chartered facilities now do about 17 per cent of all surgeries in the province. That’s up from 15 per cent in 2020, when 44,000 out of a total of 290,000 surgeries were delivered privately, according to AHS.

Meanwhile, Copping announced that consultant Ronan Segrave has been appointed to lead the province’s new surgical initiatives.

Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd reiterated in a statement Friday the rush to shift to private delivery will throw the health-care system into “further chaos.”

“Ramping up privatization of eye surgeries is just one part of the UCP’s overall flawed plan to force more private profit into public health care — an approach that’s failed in provinces across the country,” said Shepherd, adding wait times are now longer in Saskatchewan than when a similar surgical initiative began.

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“Public dollars should be directed to public health care, not private profits,” said Shepherd. He called for the UCP to put the issue on the ballot box in the next provincial election, which is expected in early 2023.

When asked by a reporter what penalties taxpayers might be saddled with if a new NDP government takes office and cancels the contracts, Copping did not directly speak to potential financial repercussions.

In an email, AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson said the contracts last seven to 10 years, and represent reductions in costs between 20 and 25 per cent.

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