Nurses as advocates of universal public health care

Since the time of Florence Nightingale, Registered nurses have been advocates for better care for their patients.   This advocacy runs across the health care spectrum, from pushing for adequate laundry, sheets and towels on weekends,   right through to what public health care policy creates the best health outcomes. Around the world nurses have been active proponents of policy that provides the best care for the broadest range of people.

In Canada and Alberta, nurses as a profession have been strong supporters of the universal, public health system that is accessible to all people, Canadian medicare.

As UNA Vice President Bev Dick says,

"Nurses are very concerned these days, particularly in Alberta, with this government, with the privatization initiatives that are going on and what that is going to mean for patient care in this province... It's the quality of care and maintaining a strong public healthcare system that's important to nurses."

In October of 1993, nurses helped organize a very successful health care rally opposing the government's extensive cuts to health care budgets and to health care staffing. UNA worked with the Alberta Association of Registered Nurses and the Staff Nurses Association of Alberta in calling a media conference to denounce the government's cutbacks to health care. These three nursing organizations also funded and developed a successful newspaper advertising campaign.

  UNA President Heather Smith said her support from public health care began early,

"It became very clear to me that we had something that allowed us to practice nursing in a different kind of way.   In a better kind of way; that we weren't worried about how much the swab cost and we weren't worried about entering it into our chart... You got the sense of the nursing practice in the United States and I knew that what we had here was different because that wasn't the focus of our care."

In 1996, Albertans were faced with another year of government debt reduction at the expense of health care, education and social services.

In February, the Salvation Army Grace Hospital in Calgary closed. 1996 also saw the closures of the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, the Holy Cross Hospital in Calgary and the Minburn-Vermilion Health Unit.

At the same time the government announced that they were putting $11.4 million dollars into Regional Health Authority budgets to alleviate the long waiting lists for joint replacement and for cardiac surgery.

UNA produced an Alberta Health Care Fact Sheet showing that prior to any cuts being made in health care, Alberta spent less of its total wealth on health care than any other Canadian province. Before 1994, Alberta spent only 5.99% of its wealth on health care, compared to the national average of 6.97%. After 1994, Alberta's health care expenditure percentage was reduced dramatically.

Nurse Pam Little, has noticed many changes, since the 1990s.

"We charge for many things [now]. We used to put casts on without charging and now we charge. There's all sorts of appliances that we charge for. I know where I work we keep a stash. We tell patients, if you want to bring this back after you're finished with it, that's great. The company would shudder at that, but we need them because we have people who need a splint and can't afford the $50 or $100 or whatever it costs... I find it really disturbing the things that I see happening, that I actually took for granted and can't believe that now people are having to make choices."

The total number of permanently-employed registered nurses in Alberta plummeted by 30 percent over 1995. Thousands of nurses were laid off. When UNA publicly released this information, the government ceased collecting the data and statistics for 1996 were not available.

At the 1997 UNA Annual General Meeting the number one concern of the delegates was the privatization of health care. In a UNA survey, 94 percent of nurses rated the increasing privatization of health care as "a very important issue for UNA action". UNA sponsored a national postcard campaign calling for a Royal Commission on health care. Thousands of postcards were distributed by UNA members and supporters and received by the federal Minister of Health.

UNA organizationally and members as individuals continued to be active in coalitions and citizen efforts to protect the public health system.   Nurses were active opponents when the government introduced Bill 37 to allow for-profit hospitals in the late 1990s. The Alberta government withdrew the legisation.   In 2000, nurses were again involved with the Friends of Medicare sponsored coalition that mounted a high profile campaign against Bill 11, the Health Care Protection Act.   The Legislation was eventually passed, but in a much watered-down state that again precluded full-tilt private hospitals from opening.

UNA President Heather Smith noted the real agenda,

"The intent of Bill 37 was to authorize the operation of private for profit hospitals.   It evolved into Bill 11 the Health Care Protection Act which is oxymoronic because it has nothing to do with protecting Health Care."