Premier Danielle Smith is asking for a bit of patience.
During her weekend radio program the premier admitted (remotely, from Dubai) to a very frustrated caller that Alberta’s emergency, surgery and ambulance wait times need addressing.
“I just ask for you to give us a little bit of time, and I hope that we’ll be able to report back to you within six months or shorter that we’re making major progress. But I agree that what we’ve had right now is unacceptable.”
Parents and sick kids in the emergency department of the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton are giving the system “a bit of time” — hours and hours of it as they wait for care. Stollery pediatric emergency doctor Amaly Rahman says in the past couple of weeks he has seen more than 50 children waiting to be seen in the emergency department. Alberta Medical Association President Dr. Paul Parks says he has heard of emergency wait times for kids in the province of up to 17 hours.
Seasonal flu, Covid and respiratory viruses are exacerbating the crisis for children and older adults but they aren’t the sole issue in a province struggling with family doctor shortages and long surgery waitlists.
Back in October 2022, Smith promised a restructuring of Alberta’s broken healthcare system in 90 days. She pleaded for patience then too when she addressed the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.
“I would hope that there’s a bit of goodwill, that some of the successes get reported as well as when we’re making some mistakes along the way. Just be patient and gentle with us because we know that we have to do this for Albertans.”
The 90 days came and went and the restructuring goes on and on.
This week the government put out a call for Albertans to participate in live town halls in the new year to discuss improvements to the health care system.
But Parks is sounding an urgent alarm that the province just can’t wait as the government juggles its plan to split health care administration into four new divisions and works out the resulting kinks.
Parks told CTV “If we don’t stabilize and salvage it right now, there’ll be nothing to restructure — that’s how difficult things are right now.”
Meanwhile, Health Minister Adriana LaGrange put out a press release reassuring Albertans that while urban emergency departments are seeing increased pressure, “no patient has been turned away.”
Parks counters by arguing that patients are just giving up after hours of waiting for attention.
“We know for a fact that our ‘left without being seen’ numbers are just skyrocketing,” he says.
LaGrange is advising Albertans to check with the provincial medical call line to determine what level of care they actually should be seeking, presumably to relieve some pressure on the emergency rooms.
The East Edmonton Health Centre has a walk-in urgent care service in the evenings designed as just such an escape valve. But it now carries a warning on its website that the urgent service is experiencing higher than normal volumes of patients and when it hits capacity it closes earlier than usual.
The rising tide of winter respiratory ailments cares not for the provincial restructuring timetable.
The provincial NDP and health care unions are calling for immediate infusion of money into the hospital system to relieve some of the crisis.
They also propose a common-sense fix – promote flu and Covid vaccines. it wouldn’t hurt if the province would also cover the cost of RSV shots, for which patients now have to shell out $300.
An immediate increase in the number of vaccinated Albertans might help reduce the flood of kids and seniors heading to the hospital. But vaccines are out of political favour so they get scant mention from the UCP.
By Dec. 2, only 21 percent of Albertans had gotten this season’s flu jab, according to the government’s figures. And only 14.6 percent have gotten the latest Covid vaccine.
Whether restructuring will actually create a more efficient system is still an open question. And yes, it requires patience while waiting for wholesale change to work its way through such a big bureaucracy.
In the meantime, there needs to be a short-term plan, including spending some of the province’s multi-billion dollar surplus and advocating for public health measures such as immunization, to keep the system running.
Sick and injured Albertans need help now, not six months from now.