As Spring returns every year, so do "feel good" announcements in election season

Health Minister Stephen Mandel and Alberta Health Services (AHS) CEO Vickie Kaminski held a press conference today to announce measures that aim to improve access to health care. However, the announcement raised more questions than answers. Mandel announced that they will be 'reallocating' $50 million from existing health care funds to the Peter Lougheed Hospital, South Health Campus, Misericordia Hospital, Royal Alexandra Hospital, and Grey Nuns Hospital to renovate and expand ER facilities.

"The announcement included no details on how the funding would be allocated between the five facilities or what specific renovations or expansions would take place, nor did it detail if any additional staff would be included with the expansions," said Sandra Azocar, Executive Director of Friends of Medicare. "It is also not clear why the brand new South Health Campus in Calgary requires renovation or expansion, or how the crumbling Misericordia Hospital will survive when it alone needs over $100 million in upgrades within the next few years."

The government opened Medical Transition Beds in hospitals in 2010 to deal with the same issues of overcrowded ERs. The government closed those beds in 2013. They have already closed 36 surgical beds this year at the Peter Lougheed Hospital, replacing them with the Rapid Transit Beds announced last month. Today's beds appear to be very similar to the Medical Transition Beds and the Rapid Transit Beds but with a new name: Restorative Beds. 311 beds were announced: 186 in Calgary and 125 in Edmonton, but it is unclear where the beds will be located.

Mandel said the Restorative Beds will be funded through Affordable Supportive Living Initiative (ASLI), which involves contracting not-for-profit organizations or for-profit private corporations which own and operate the facilities. In the 2012-2013 fiscal year, $74.3 million in grants were awarded through ASLI to build long-term care and supportive living spaces, over half of which was given to for-profit corporations.

"Instead of building bed capacity and staffing capacity in the public system, the government's use of ASLI funding guarantees the beds will be in the private, and potentially for-profit, sector," said Azocar. "Failing to add capacity to our public system is short-sighted and will cost the public more in the long run."

Mandel also pledged in the press conference to take action on mental health, yet he provided no particulars, and mental health was oddly absent from the government's press release issued on the announcement.  The mention of mental health came just two days after AHS announced they would close the out-patient mental health program at Calgary's Rockyview General Hospital at the end of March due to 'inefficiencies.' The program employs three therapists who provide care to 60 patients, with an additional 17 patients on a waiting list.

"Mental health services across this province don't measure up to the ongoing and increasing need in Alberta, yet the government still lacks a clear plan of action to improve and expand it," added Azocar. "Albertans deserve better."

Friends of Medicare acknowledges that there are no quick fixes to the problems created by decades of mismanagement. We are also keenly aware that Albertans need permanent, well-thought-out solutions to the pressures on our health care system, and those solutions must be staffed and funded accordingly. We look forward to learning more about the details of today's announcement.