Editors note: Updated throughout
EDMONTON — Alberta plans to eliminate 500 nursing positions over the next three years in what the union representing registered nurses calls a betrayal of trust and a broken promise to maintain front-line care.
David Harrigan, labour negotiator for the United Nurses of Alberta, says the move by Alberta Health Services means at least 750 nurses will be out of work once job-sharing is factored in.
"It means a very significant number of layoffs. It means longer wait lists. It means less care. It likely means more privatization," Harrigan said Friday after learning of the decision in a meeting with the health agency.
"This government made an absolute promise there would be no reduction in front-line care. We met this morning and were told the exact opposite."
Alberta Health Services, which is heading into collective bargaining with nurses next year, said in a letter that it wanted to give nurses a heads-up on finances and staffing.
In the letter, AHS said jobs will be eliminated through attrition until the end of March, after which it will use "all options" it has under the collective bargaining agreement.
"Total (full-time equivalent) impact over the next three years is estimated to be 500," Raelene Fitz, lead negotiator for AHS, said in the letter.
Finance Minister Travis Toews, who speaks for Premier Jason Kenney's government on public-sector bargaining, said the United Conservatives promised to deliver more efficient, improved front-line care.
"This means that some difficult but necessary decisions are required to ensure available funding is directed to the front-line services Albertans need most," Toews said in a statement.
"These could include changes to staffing levels, aligning resources to areas where need is greater, as well as finding alternative ways to deliver services that would keep jobs in the Alberta economy."
Kenney said his government promised not to cut health funding and has increased it a bit.
But he added a government-commissioned report on Alberta's finances found that the province is paying more per capita than other jurisdictions on health with comparatively substandard results.
"We cannot continue to spend 20 per cent more on health care with the youngest population (and) getting worse outcomes," Kenney said following a speech in Lake Louise, Alta.
"We need to find a better way of delivering those services, and part of that is finding efficiencies."
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Kenney is breaking a campaign promise to keep front-line services whole.
"He lied," Notley said in an interview from Calgary.
"This is the exact opposite of what Jason Kenney promised Albertans in the election in May. He does not have a mandate to do this. He has a mandate to preserve front-line services."
Alberta plans to spend $20.6 billion this year on health, which includes increases for mental health, opioid addictions treatment and palliative care.
It is a one per cent increase from the previous budget and represents 43 per cent of total government operational spending.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro has said the province is looking at options to deliver more cost-effective services, including increased privatization of universally available and publicly paid-for services.
A third-party review of AHS operations is to be completed by year's end.
Alberta's Health Ministry sets policy and direction for care, while Alberta Health Services delivers and administers front-line services.
The letter to the union said AHS is considering option such as reshaping services at some smaller sites and contracting out nursing, palliative and pediatric care.
Notley said that suggests significant structural upheaval is coming to health under Kenney.
"He's going to hurt the very services that our loved ones rely on."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2019.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press