EDMONTON — Alberta United Conservative Leader Danielle Smith was hustled offstage by security Thursday after a handful of placard-waving protesters disrupted her news conference over past musings about selling hospitals to private operators.
“Hospitals are not for sale!” they shouted holding aloft "for sale" signs.
One demonstrator managed to reach the stage and refused to leave while others were held back by staffers at a Calgary hotel, where Smith was making a campaign announcement on fee cuts ahead of the May 29 election.
Smith was quickly taken offstage by security while the two UCP candidates on stage, Rajan Sawhney and Pamela Rath, were left to stand awkwardly beside the protester for a few moments until the video feed cut out and the protesters were led away.
A few minutes later, the feed resumed and Smith returned to take questions. She compared the protesters to the Opposition NDP, saying both seek to misrepresent her position on health care and that her government is committed to not making people pay out of pocket for medically necessary services.
“I think activists like we just saw here and the NDP keep trying to confuse the issue,” she said.
Smith said her government is using private surgical suites to reduce wait lists, but stressed "we will contract out surgeries where it makes sense and we will not privatize the hospitals that are under the umbrella of Alberta Health Services.”
The NDP said that elections are about talking to voters.
“What happened today during a press conference with Danielle Smith was unacceptable and we strongly condemned the actions taken by the protesters involved.”
Pollsters say health care is a key issue in the election campaign.
Smith has faced concerns over comments she made before she become premier last fall, such as advocating in multiple interviews and in an academic policy paper that Albertans should pay out of pocket for some medically necessary services, such as seeing a family doctor, to ensure the system can remain sustainable over the long term.
This week, the NDP released video footage from the fall of 2021 showing Smith musing about selling hospitals to the private sector as a way to increase efficiency and savings in the public system.
Just before the election, Smith announced the UCP would be committed to public health if re-elected.
Smith noted her government recently signed a long-term health funding deal with the federal government, and implicit in that is a promise to respect medicare.
“You should judge me based on what I do,” said Smith.
Smith also dismissed comments made earlier this week by Nathan Neudorf, her deputy premier and the candidate for Lethbridge-East.
Neudorf, at a candidate forum, said he's concerned Albertans are abusing hospital emergency wards by going there for minor ailments and procedures such as pregnancy tests and stomach aches.
“Maybe if somebody had to pay for that, they’d think twice about going to the emergency for something that’s not an emergency,” he said.
Neudorf nevertheless reminded the audience his party is committed to a fully funded public health-care system.
And he, too, said people should judge Smith by her actions rather than comments she made when she was a pundit and radio talk-show host.
“(On the talk show) she was paid to be provocative and start conversations about different things,” he said.
NDP Lethbridge-West candidate Shannon Phillips said Neudorf’s comments are not only offensive for suggesting Albertans pay for emergency care, but also because people are going to emergency rooms because they cannot find a family doctor.
Phillips said they can’t find a family doctor because the UCP chased them away by fighting with them and tearing up the master agreement with the Alberta Medical Association.
“The very problem that Nathan Neudorf thinks you should now pay for is the one he himself created,” Phillips said.
The NDP is also promising to fully fund and commit to public care while also going on a massive hiring campaign to recruit more health workers.
Lorian Hardcastle, an assistant professor in the University of Calgary's faculty of law, said crowded emergency wards are a symptom, not a root cause.
“A lot of people … maybe know they don't need to be there, but they don't have other places to go,” said Hardcastle, who specializes in health law and policy.
“If people don't have access to primary care or don't have access to urgent care, of course they are going to end up in ERs.
"The solution is not to charge them but rather to address the underlying problem.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2023.
— With files from Colette Derworiz in Calgary
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press