Author of controversial bill put in charge of $14 million in palliative care funding

Peace River MLA Dan Williams, author of a controversial bill that would have impacted end of life, was put in charge of $14 million in palliative care funding Sept. 9. Above, Williams moderates a live press conference announcing the UCP government’s new investments in palliative care.

Peace River MLA Dan Williams proposed bill that would have impacted end of life

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

Peace River MLA Dan Williams will be leading government engagement on $14 million in palliative care spending.

The UCP promised $20 million for palliative care in their election platform.

On Sept. 9, the government announced that of that $20 million, $1 million is going to the Alberta Hospice Palliative Care Association to “establish in-person and online support groups, develop Alberta’s first telephone grief support line, and expand workshops on palliative care”.

People who have lost loved ones will be able to phone for counselling and grief support.

Another $5 million is going to Covenant Health Palliative Institute to “increase access to palliative and end-of-life services and promote advance care planning.”

That investment was already announced in the 2020-21 budget.

The plan also eliminates co-payments on end-of-life drugs.

“I will be consulting with stakeholders and individual Albertans on how government should allocate the remaining $14 million over three years to help those who need palliative care supports,” Williams says.

“As we continue to face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, now is an important time to discuss end-of-life matters with our families and friends so that we can face the future with strength and dignity.”

Williams says the funding will help raise public awareness of palliative care and how one can access it in the Alberta.

“We’re going to continue to shift from hospitals into community, home-based and hospice care at end of life and improve palliative care education for our health care professionals and providers.”

Williams says that way people can spend the end of their lives in their home communities.

Williams says he will work with stakeholders across the province to identify “gaps in the system” and decide how to fill those gaps.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro says the funding is an important commitment and he is proud to deliver on it.

“The past 6 months have been extraordinarily difficult. The pandemic has changed how we live, it’s changed how we work, but it has not changed the mission of our healthcare system: to give high quality care to every patient and to treat every patient and to treat their families with respect and compassion,” he says.

“That applies most of all at the end of life and regardless of COVID-19, the reality is that we have historically not done as much as we could.”

Shandro says with the new funding, Covenant Health will educate Albertans on how to have difficult and important conversations to plan for the end of life.

Covenant Health is one of Canada’s largest Catholic healthcare providers. The organization’s website says its mission is “we are uniquely called to continue the healing ministry of Jesus—serving the minds, bodies and spirits of those most vulnerable with compassion and the highest quality of care available.”

However, critics such as Friends of Medicare have previously identified faith-based organizations and specifically Covenant Health as a barrier to equal access to Medical Assistance In Dying [MAID].

Although MAID became legal in Canada in 2016, Covenant Health’s official policy says, “As a Catholic health care organization, Covenant Health is committed to uphold the inherent dignity of every human being throughout the entire continuum of life from conception to natural death. Therefore, Covenant Health will not provide nor explicitly refer for MAID given the incompatibility of MAID with the organization’s mission and ethical tradition.”

Since Covenant Health won’t provide the service in all its facilities including its faith-based hospitals, patients have to be transferred elsewhere to access MAID.

Williams has previously promoted controversial views on MAID and palliative care while presenting his private members bill, Bill 207, first introduced in November 2019.

Williams’ Conscience Rights [Health Care Providers] Protection Act would have allowed health care providers to refuse to offer medical treatments such as contraception, abortion, MAID, and gender-affirming care if they believed such treatments infringed on their “conscience rights” or religion.

Currently, medical providers are not required to offer services but must refer patients on to providers who will. The bill would have removed the requirement for the referral, and also have protected healthcare providers from lawsuits and potential sanctions by the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Williams’ controversial bill was voted down by the Standing Committee on private bills and private members’ bills with several UCP members voting against it going on to second reading.

Critics of the bill worried it would allow more discrimination against trans and LGBTQA Albertans, or reduce women’s access to abortions, particularly in small rural communities.

When Williams rose in the Legislature on Dec. 2, 2019 to defend the bill after the committee voted against going ahead with it, he specifically quoted letters he had received on palliative care and MAID.

“One palliative care nurse in Calgary wrote, ‘It is a real concern of mine that I would one day have to give up my calling [as a palliative care nurse] and so I feel strongly the need for the Conscience Rights Protection Act; so that my ability to nurse for those suffering and dying may not be jeopardized. That I may not have to tip-toe facility to facility in search of a job that would be ‘safe’ for me to work.’”

Williams also said, “One other letter I received was from a young girl who recently graduated high school and is in her first year of university. She was a Syrian refugee. She came to Canada just over three years ago. This was the same time that MAID became legal after the Carter decision. She wrote a long letter, and in that letter she mentioned a few things that I want to highlight to the Assembly today. I never want to be told or forced to advise someone to [pursue] euthanasia … She’s writing because, like many young Albertans, she wants to work in health care. She has plans to become a doctor.”

However, Williams was interrupted by the tragic suicide of Ken Chan on the steps on the Legislature and the House had to be adjourned.

Before he died, Chan reportedly sent two e-mails simultaneously, one to his coworkers at a trucking company, and one addressed to both the provincial and federal governments that expressed concern about access to medical assistance in dying, or MAID.

Williams’ bill has been criticized by MAID advocacy organization Dying With Dignity Canada for potentially allowing health care providers to refuse to provide accurate information on MAID to their patients.

The fall session of the Legislature ended shortly after the Legislature was reconvened and the conscience bill effectively died on the order papers.

A request for comment on whether his previous work on the conscience rights bill would carry over in any way to his work on palliative care funding sent to both MLA Williams’ offices and UCP communications officer Justin Marshall had not received a response by press time.

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