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Province proposes amendments to Public Health Act

Last Updated Apr 13, 2021 at 6:25 am MDT

EDMONTON (660 NEWS) — One of Alberta’s oldest pieces of legislation is getting an update after the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted several flaws.

The Public Health Act was originally introduced in 1907, and Bill 66 tabled by Health Minister Tyler Shandro on Monday after feedback was accepted from Albertans and a panel to modernize it.

There are several proposed changes, such as removing sections in the act that authorize a minister to modify legislation by order, removing powers to order mandatory immunization, and adds provisions that can help address chronic diseases and preventable injuries.

A main point of the amendments is also to add checks and balances on authorities, such as during a public health emergency like we are currently in.

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“Checks and balances play an important role in the balancing of protecting public health, with individual rights,” Shandro said. “Many of the proposed amendments in Bill 66 enhance individual rights and create additional safeguards while maintaining the government’s abilities to respond to public health challenges.”

There’s also a new requirement to have all orders that apply to the public published online to provide greater transparency.

The section on removing the ability for a minister to modify legislation by order follows through on previous direction from 2020 when Shandro committed to repealing sections of Bill 10, the Public Health Emergency Powers Amendment Act. This was not recommended by a committee, but Shandro said they were responding to public feedback on that point.

“I think that the feedback that we got from Albertans about making amendments to legislation through ministerial order was a concern for Albertans,” he said. “We’ve also seen throughout the pandemic that the Legislature still met, so there is continued opportunity for us to meet as a Legislature and pass emergency legislation when it might be needed in a future pandemic without having to do it through a ministerial order.”

As the pandemic has also changed how people go to work, there are updated provisions in the bill that reflect the possibility of working remotely.

Shandro said this will overall put the province in a better position to respond to any future pandemics, and they also will establish the qualifications of the chief medical officer of health, similar to other provinces.

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He added the introduction of these amendments will have no impact on current public health measures and will not impact the ability of the government to respond to COVID-19. It will also extend pandemic influenza provisions to other pandemic diseases to help streamline response.

In addition to pandemic-related changes, there’s also a repeal of a section concerning illicit drug use, as Albertans would no longer be fined for using inhalants as an intoxicant. The government said this is a unique measure for Alberta, as the fines are inappropriately punitive for vulnerable people.

Also looking beyond the pandemic, the amendments concerning chronic diseases and preventable illnesses will assist with developing various public health messaging in order to prevent some of these diseases and will look for growing prevalence of them in the community.

“Enabling the public health officials and the chief medical officer of health to do that monitoring is going to allow us to modernize the act and put us in line with what other jurisdictions are doing in Canada,” Shandro said. “(Diabetes) is a perfect example. Allowing the chief medical officer of health to do that monitoring and to develop a health plan so that work can be done, and provide advice to the government to continue to be responsive.”

The bill also stipulates that the act be reviewed every ten years, rather than every five years.