Opinion: It's past time to fix health-care closures and short-staffing in Alberta

Opinion: It's past time to fix health-care closures and short-staffing in Alberta

This Op-Ed by FOM's Executive Director, Chris Gallaway, originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal on August 20, 2022.

Recent announcements of an urgent-care hours reduction in Airdrie, the temporary emergency department closure in Hardisty, and the obstetrics closure in Fort Saskatchewan are just the latest examples of the bed and unit closures which are rampant throughout our health-care system this summer.

Short-staffing and burnout are everywhere. This has led to service reductions in surgery, acute care, urgent care and emergency departments currently happening at over 35 facilities across the province. This, while tens of thousands more Albertans have lost their family doctor, EMS red alerts are occurring hundreds of times per month, and families have been left lining up in parking lots outside of emergency rooms.

If this isn’t a health-care crisis, I don’t know what is. Our health-care system is struggling under the strain of a seventh wave of the pandemic and a series of other crises. Yet, where is our provincial government? Such an urgent situation should precipitate an urgent response. A response that includes strong provincial leadership with a plan to retain the health-care workers that we have, to recruit workers into the system, and train those we will need for the future.

Instead, we have a government that is missing in action. And a UCP leadership race to select our new premier where the seven candidates have so far offered almost nothing in terms of health-care solutions, beyond blaming the federal government. Because the truth is, what’s happening to our public health-care system isn’t an accident. We have a government that is intent on breaking our public system in order to justify privatizing more and more of it. Watching the system struggle and wait lists continue to grow serves their agenda well.

Which is why at every turn, this government has prioritized privatization over improving patient care — with recent announcements privatizing surgeries, community labs, ophthalmology, seniors care, home care, and even a scheme to send Alberta surgeons along with their patients to private for-profit facilities out of province. Their agenda of privatization is clear. It is full steam ahead. And it will only worsen the dire staffing situation facing our public system.

Albertans should be very concerned. If there was ever a time to fight for our treasured public health-care system, it’s right now. Because while our system is clearly struggling, it isn’t beyond repair. There are short- and longer-term solutions to our staffing issues worth fighting for.

Nurses across the country have also been calling on premiers to adopt policy changes aimed to retain nurses and bring others back into the system. For months, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta has been calling for specific retention strategies to address our EMS crisis, including simple policy changes such as all paramedics being offered permanent full-time jobs instead of being forced into 89-day rotating casual contracts with no benefits or job security.

And there are solutions to the various crises which have been adding further pressure onto our health-care system. For instance, responding to the ongoing drug poisoning crisis with a harm reduction approach would reduce the strain on our EMS and emergency departments. We could listen to calls to take proactive measures to reduce the impact of heat waves, of monkeypox, and of future waves of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We could finally implement the demand for paid sick days for all Alberta workers.

Yet all of these calls for action have been ignored. Which only means we need to get louder. Because even with this stubborn, ideological provincial government, all hope is not lost.

The recent response to the government’s cruel and short-sighted decision to cut the Insulin Pump Benefits Program demonstrated this. Following massive public outcry, the government announced a reversal of their plans to terminate the program and have even opened consultations on improving benefits. This happened because thousands and thousands of grassroots Albertans spoke up, rallied, wrote to their MLAs, shared their stories and fought back.

Albertans made it clear that in this province we look out for each other’s health, regardless of ability to pay.

With the next provincial election on the horizon, we need to make supporting our public health-care system a bigger issue than ever before. Albertans need to make it clear to every political party that we demand better. We did it for insulin pumps and can do the same for our public health-care system.