De-Regionalization of Alberta Health Care – “big urban centres to dominate”, writes contributor

It has been seven months now since the nine health regions in the province were decommissioned and our health care system was put in the hands of one Provincial Health Services Board, the “superboard” as it is commonly (but not officially) known. Albertans can be forgiven if they have some reservations about all the changes.

Dear Editor;

It has been seven months now since the nine health regions in the province were decommissioned and our health care system was put in the hands of one Provincial Health Services Board, the “superboard” as it is commonly (but not officially) known. Albertans can be forgiven if they have some reservations about all the changes.

What will the benefits of the superboard system be? Will it save money? That’s hard to believe when we read about the lavish severance packages and pension arrangements that have been handed out to all the senior administrators who have been let go. Will it lead to more efficient use of space and services? That will depend on the ability of administrators in Edmonton to respond effectively to needs all over the province. And perhaps most important to us here in David Thompson country, how will local and regional interests be addressed? Red Deer has been very well served by our City-owned, operated and funded Emergency Services, which combined fire and ambulance professionals for an efficient reliable utility. Placing this under the control of the distant new Alberta Health Services Board removes both local management and control and is unhelpful.

There is a concern that centralization creates a tendency for big urban centres to dominate, putting health care services further out of reach for people in smaller communities. A recent letter to the editor by a Red Deer general surgeon expressed his frustration and concern, and the fear that the new superboard in Edmonton will be even farther from the front lines, and everyday issues in Central Alberta will be seen as inconsequential. He said that recruitment of surgeons has already become a problem: some divisions can’t attract surgeons, and other divisions (orthopedics and general surgery) won’t recruit until more operating time is available to offer to new candidates. When nurses and doctors complain about these problems, not much seems to happen. Until more families complain, clearly and loudly, to those in positions of influence, not much will change.

All of the uncertainty about what is happening is having a negative effect on services here. While Central Albertans continue to receive high quality health care by the committed professional staff in our hospitals, the changes in administrative management reported in the media have started to show up in the departure of some of the important members of the health care team. The resignation of four of the province’s top doctors from Alberta Health and Wellness in recent months adds to the uncertainty the province is experiencing and does not help attract doctors and other health care staff to Alberta, particularly smaller health centres.

Some health inspection staff have left. The David Thompson Health region reported that the shortage of front line health care professionals has been acute for some time in our health region; and before its dissolution they were on a serious recruiting program. Now, while the new system is being planned and organized, is not a good time to lose qualified staff or for that matter, to encourage new staff to come on board. A senior administrator with the Health Region said recently that perceived instabilities following the consolidation of the province’s health boards could lead people to question coming to work in the region. “People like to know who they’re answering to and where they fit,” he said. “I can’t say that it’s been a problem so far in recruiting, but it could be in the future.”

Perhaps the greatest concern is the lack of transparency surrounding all these changes. Was there a plan? Is there a plan now, or is being made up as we go along? The lack of any publicity or consultation is a concern to many Albertans who remember the “Third Way’ initiative the Conservative government produced (and rejected) only three years ago. Is this just another way to push us along the path to privatization and American-style health care?

There are a large number of urgent issues to be dealt with, and the sooner the new board can start on them the better. Only then will we find out the new direction Alberta government is taking in fulfilling their promises. Mandatory accreditation for all health facilities and programs is now required. Recent concerns about unsafe practices in rural hospitals must be fixed; but only regular monitoring and enforcement of the standards will work. The present Health Facilities Review Committee may not be up to the task. A workforce plan for education of physicians, registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, personal care attendants and other health professionals, such as respiratory therapists and medical laboratory technologists should be promoted, and publicized. And candidates should be encouraged to enter these professions, with adequate salaries and public esteem.

After the many styles of healthcare administration experimented with by Alberta Conservatives in the past, we hope this one will be successful.

Albertans value the importance and commitment to quality public healthcare, and want the Alberta Government to manage and fund it accordingly. The public owns this public health-care system. Those hospitals in each town are our public property and we will fight to ensure that people retain those public facilities and those public services. We commit to keep reminding our MLAs, and encourage readers to do the same.

Sam Denhaan

President, Central Alberta Council on Aging

Red Deer, Alta.