BARRHEAD — In response to criticisms from the NDP that the UCP government has created the staffing shortages afflicting local health care facilities through attacks on health care professionals, Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken has pointed out that the shortages are the result of physicians, nurses and others taking much-needed vacation time or going on stress leave.
“I think it’s unfortunate that (the NDP have) politicized the situation in our healthcare system that continues to feel the strain of the pandemic,” he said, in an interview on Aug. 12.
“There is no doubt that there is a labour shortage in our health care system at this time. The demands are great, and the people that are working there have put in a lot of extra time over the past couple years. They are needing to have some time to refresh. Alberta Health Services (AHS) is trying to manage it in the best way possible.”
During a press conference on Aug. 10, Edmonton-Millwoods MLA Christina Gray — who also serves as the NDP Labour Critic — called on the province to respond to the disruptions in service at more than 30 health care centres around Alberta, including Barrhead, Boyle and Swan Hills.
AHS issued a release literally a day later indicating that there would be no on-site physician coverage at the Barrhead Healthcare Centre emergency department from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on Aug. 12-13, Aug. 14-15, Aug. 16-17 and Aug. 17-18. Barrhead has experienced similar disruptions for around eight to nine months now.
Because of its own lack of nursing staff, the Boyle Healthcare Centre has been operating on reduced hours since the start of July, closing overnight from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. Originally, these temporary hours were only supposed to last until Aug. 1, but they were recently extended to Sept. 1.
Likewise, the Swan Hills Healthcare Centre has been operating on reduced hours since June 9, closing overnight from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. These temporary hours were supposed to end in early August but were recently extended to the end of the month.
“This is just one part of the health care story I’m hearing from families and front-line workers,” she said.
Gray also highlighted the fact that “red alerts” signaling a lack of ambulances have exploded in Edmonton and Calgary, due at least in part to ambulances getting stuck at overwhelmed hospitals, unable to hand off their patients.
Gray suggested that the root of this problem is the UCP government’s attacks on health care professionals.
“They tore up contracts and threatened workers before and during a global pandemic. They chased family doctors out of the province, leaving hundreds of thousands of Albertans with nowhere to go except for emergency rooms.”
In response, van Dijken pointed out that the UCP government has increased health care funding significantly over the past couple of years; indeed, the 2022 budget included a $476 million increase for AHS operations, bringing their total budget to nearly $15.1 billion.
van Dijken also indicated the province has added roughly 1,900 registered nurses over the last two years and 250 paramedics. As well, Alberta had more physicians this year than in 2021.
However, the pandemic created a very difficult situation wherein a lot of health care workers had to put in extra overtime, resulting in health care workers either getting burned out or banking up vacation time, he said.
“I believe it’s incumbent to try and manage through that as best we can,” he said, adding that there were no short-term fixes for this situation.
“It is unfortunate that our rural facilities experience the brunt of the shutdowns. But AHS has to try and manage to where the demand is.”
Another criticism raised by Gray is that none of the contenders in the UCP leadership race are talking about the disruptions in health care within their own ridings.
Instead, when health care has been talked about, the leadership contenders have discussed looking to other countries or looking to re-organize the health care system, Gray said.
“We need a real plan now, today, on the ground, not more chaos and re-organization,” she said.
Gray said these challenges could be addressed by listening to health care workers, offering more stable contracts to Emergency Medical Services, putting in more mental health supports and introducing new strategies to recruit and retain frontline health care workers.
"This government is focused on its own political future, the infighting, the division,” she said.
van Dijken challenged that assertion, noting he had heard all the leadership contenders talk about the challenges in the system and how it is among the No. 1 priorities for whoever takes over as Premier.
He added that the health care system has been dealing with adequate staffing issues his entire adult life, but he doesn’t recall the NDP putting in place any strategies to deal with Alberta’s growing population or the aging demographics of health care workers.
Regarding the lack of on-site physician coverage in Barrhead, van Dijken had one bit of good news: he believed that the RESIDE (Rural Education Supplement and Integrated Doctor Experience) program would be bringing a new physician into the community this fall.
“I haven’t heard all the details about that, but I’m quite hopeful that’s going to help alleviate some of our staffing shortfalls in Barrhead,” he said.
van Dijken said he also met recently with the Town of Swan Hills council and Minister of Health while the latter was in Slave Lake along with their staff for a meeting with representatives of various health care advisory councils.
“The Minister is very much aware of the capacity issues and is putting together programs to address them as quickly as possible,” he said.
van Dijken noted the Town of Swan Hills is particularly worried that their health care centre is facing potential closure.
“That’s not the consideration at all, but I can understand why there is concern in Swan Hills,” he said, acknowledging that the disruptions in Barrhead also cuts off one of the options for Swan Hills residents who need emergency care.