Sunday, February 26, 2012

Of Umbrellas and Safety Nets: Health Care in Acute and Chronic Crisis

This past Friday and Saturday, a conference called Beyond Acute Care had speakers and panels discussing health care issues concerning the elderly, disabled, and other vulnerable citizens. The illustration of what is currently happening our health care system is something like this: there is an umbrella over top of this population, which takes care of most acute needs. However, when the need for care becomes chronic, the umbrella gets smaller and smaller, with more and more services needing to be paid for out of the pockets of the patients or their families.

These issues are of importance to everyone, regardless of age or health status. Many of us, if we are fortunate, will become senior citizens some day. With the health care system being so precarious now, worrying about what it will be like decades from now is justified. As well, life can change in an instant. There are those for whom an accident, a brain injury, or a serious mental illness suddenly took them off of their current paths and into the chronic health care system. As well, if you are like me, you may become a caregiver to an ill parent, taking precious time from your work time and social life to attend to her needs while being faced with decisions concerning what to do when the situation becomes too medically complicated to deal with, without some outside form of help - help which will likely come with a price tag.

The "umbrella" of which the organizers of the conference speak has another name: the safety net. One with a lot of holes through which the vulnerable fall. For example, an elderly person falls, breaks her hip, and has to be hospitalized. Her acute needs are taken care of: she gets a hip replacement, some initial physical therapy, and during her hospital stay gets medication she needs for the pain. However, due to her injury, she can no longer live at home, unassisted. She either has to get live-in help or move to a long-term care facility - neither of which are inexpensive options. Plus, she has prescription medications that, while subsidized because of her age, still cost a significant amount out of pocket for someone on a fixed income.

So really, when a medical situation goes beyond the need for acute care, things get quite precarious. Even within acute care, a person's finances can be stretched. Prescription medication is perhaps the best example of this. I had an ear infection requiring antibiotic drops a few years ago. The tiny bottle of medicine cost around $35. That is a lot of money for someone on a budget. People who have chronic conditions like MS have medication they have to be on for the long haul. Unless they have good private insurance from their employer (which is getting rarer and rarer these days) or have purchased insurance on their own, they are financially hooped.

Related to this are the ridiculous fees one has to pay to see a dentist, which is also not covered unless you have private coverage. Last year, I had to have two fillings, a check up, and a cleaning. The bill came out close to $1000. I don't have insurance, so the bill caused me quite a bit more pain than my cavities. It was also a reminder as to why I had not been to a dentist for five years. However, infections and abscesses originating in the mouth can lead to death. I can't understand why dental work is not covered by our health care system. Since we're talking about older people, they often need extra dental care and procedures like having dentures made for them.

Another issue affecting our health care system is the pay and treatment of Alberta Health Services Support Workers. The wildcat strike held by members of the AUPE at the Royal Alex and University of Alberta hospitals on February 16 was a wakeup call to many to these workers' conditions. Perhaps it is my OCD tendencies speaking, but I want the person responsible for sterilizing equipment for a procedure to be well-treated and well-paid. The very fact that over 60 elective surgeries had to be cancelled demonstrated the importance of these people to the proper functioning of the health care system. Respect them.

It is a government's job to make sure its citizens are healthy and protected. There is a provincial election around the corner. Pay close attention to what the candidates are saying about public health care. If anyone even breathes the word "privatization" - be afraid. Be very afraid. Because no matter how much they promise that the system will be arranged in such a way that everyone will have access, regardless of their financial situation, invariably it will turn into a situation where those who can pay will get treated first, and better. Instead, choose those who will make our public services a priority and put money where it is needed. After all, like closing speaker Maude Barlow (National Chairperson of the

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cool Stuff in a Winter City

Cool Stuff by raise my voice
Cool Stuff, a photo by raise my voice on Flickr.

Winter is a part of life in Edmonton. In fact, as a born and bred Edmontonian, I can't really imagine life without it. We've had it easy this year (for the most part - as I write this, centimetre upon centimetre is falling from the sky at a very fast rate), but the winter of 2011 reminded me of the ones when I was a child: long, snowy, and COLD!

An exhibit in Enterprise Square until the end of March examines the area through the lens of winter. Cool Stuff features more than 350 items from the University of Alberta's 29 museums. Artwork, clothing, animal specimens, and other artefacts exemplify life in the northern winter, both now and throughout history. Some items that really stood out for me were items of Inuit dress, as well as the colourful artwork by Ted Harrison.

Winter is something that has been on the City's mind for a while now. The WinterCity Strategy is part of an effort to encourage peopel to embrace the winter and present Edmonton as a world leader in celebrating our climate.

Winter has been celebrated in Edmonton through several festivals, such as Silver Skate (the longest-running winter festival in Edmonton), Ice on Whyte, the various efforts of the Edmonton Winter Light Society, and most recently, Metropolis.

Since staying inside is not going to make the snow and cold going away, activities that encourage people to get outside and take part in activities is quite important, even if it is just admiring sculptures of snow and ice. Offering some coverage to allow people to warm up is also important, but putting everything inside, even if it just within temporary structures (like with Metropolis) is counter-productive. If I want to go to an indoor activity, I would rather go see a band perform in a concert venue, a movie in a theatre, or a conference at a hotel.

That being said, having one-off events like the recent Parka Patio presented by Latitude 53 had a little bit of everything: food, music, and art in a setting modified to accommodate the weather and make sure everyone was comfortable.

I am a big fan of hyper-local, neighbourhood celebrations; ones that not only offer things to enjoy for local residents, but are actually a reason for people from other parts of the city to head over and experience life outside their immediate environment. I am thinking about Common Ground in McCauley, which was part of the Winter Light series of events. Music, storytelling, food, and outdoor installations were just part of this incredible event. Performances took part inside teepees heated by fire, while there was plenty outside to see and do. And those in attendance were not just from the inner city.

Keep it relevant, keep it multifaceted, and keep it focussed on local culture, food, and entertainment, and combine it with planning that takes into account the unpredictable fluctuations in weather that our winters are famous for, and that is a winning combination. No event or strategy will be all things to all people, so it is important to have a variety of options instead of pushing one major "winter festival."

Then, there are the practical details that should always be a priority for Edmonton's City Council, if we want the city to be truly safe and sustainable year round. More cycling lanes will ensure that those brave (or crazy!) enough to ride on two wheels in the winter will not have as much traffic with which to contend. Road maintenance and effective snow clearing and sanding are definitely important.

Finally, the activist in me has to get this in: the City needs effective, continuing strategies on dealing with homelessness and affordable housing. These are issues that increase in urgency when the weather gets colder. Since we have such a long winter season combined with a significant homeless population (as well as those at risk) and shelters that become overextended to the maximum, this needs to be a top priority. After all, to me at least, exactly how "world class" a city is directly relates to how well it takes care of those citizens who are most vulnerable.

We can embrace the climate in Edmonton as well as everyone who lives here. We have the minds, the talent, and the ability.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

This Is Not What Democracy Looks Like - Occupy Edmonton, Part 2 & National Student Day of Action

After appearing to lay low for a while (although they were meeting on a regular basis), Occupy Edmonton decided to come out from the shadows and planned a "Re-Occupy Edmonton" march and rally. The event was originally to be held this coming weekend, but the organizers decided to move the date to February 1 to coincide with the National Student Day of Action protesting tuition fee hikes.

The plan was to march from Ezio Faraone Park to the University of Alberta campus, joining the U of A student protesters in Quad. However, plans were quickly changed. When I arrived at Ezio Faraone Park, I noticed a significant number of police officers, as well as an EPS chopper flying overhead. In short order, during a "mic check" (where one person speaks and everyone else repeats), it was explained that OE protesters could not set foot on campus. The U of A had asked the police to arrest protesters who did not heed this warning (never mind the fact that many protesters were current and former students and faculty).

At the same time, we were also told that Campus Security had issued a warning to U of A students on campus that they could not protest in the Quad area as planned. Both announcements were absolutely baffling to me, as International Week is currently happening on campus, the theme being Living Democracy: Citizen Power in a Global Age.

The march proceeded over the High Level Bridge and headed to Saskatchewan Drive, where police informed protesters they could not cross onto U of A property and made a human and bicycle barricade. There were around 20 police officers, another dozen or so Campus Security people, and that chopper flying overhead. There were around 70 protesters.

A lot of the focus shifted to the belief that Occupy Edmonton was going to set up an encampment on U of A property, thus leading to the campus engaging the services of the police. However, no one that I saw was carrying camping gear. Most of the people simply wanted to protest, and then leave. I don't understand why they were not allowed to do so. A university campus is supposed to be a place of free, open ideas and speech. If there were people who would have stayed behind and tried to camp - well, then that would have been the appropriate time for Campus Security to get involved, with police backup should it have been necessary.

And yes, students and staff with identification proving them as such were permitted to cross the street onto campus. Could they have protested on U of A property under these circumstances? We will never know.

But the major problem here is the shift of focus from the issue at hand - tuition fees and pay equity - to camping. Because of the police hoopla over Occupy Edmonton as an entity, the message got lost. I am not sure if this was a purposeful tactic by the U of A but if it was, it was a brilliant lesson in diversion.

Basically, the U of A completely overreacted. It shunned the value of free speech in favour of control. Historically, university campuses are places where radical politics take root and ideas from all spectrums flow. Instead, the U of A decided to let fear dictate its actions. Living democracy? This is not what democracy should look like.

Here is my full photo set from the protest. Here is a video of the initial mic check, when the news was shared concerning the police presence; the march to Saskatchewan Drive; and, the rally as it took place despite the police barricade.

I have been documenting the incident as portrayed in social media through Storify, and will continue to update the story as needed.