Alberta has become the seventh province to sign an agreement in principle with Ottawa on health-care funding.
The federal government said in a news release Monday that more than $24 billion is to be invested in Alberta’s health-care system over the next 10 years.
That includes $2.9 billion for a new bilateral agreement focused on shared health priorities and $233 million in an immediate, one-time top up to the Canada Health Transfer to address urgent needs, which include help for pediatric hospitals and emergency rooms, as well as addressing long wait times for surgeries.
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The deal also aims to improve access to family health services, including in rural and remote areas and in underserved communities. Other goals include fostering a resilient and supported health workforce, improving mental health care and addictions services and allowing access to Albertans’ own electronic health information.
Alberta joins the four Atlantic provinces, Ontario and Manitoba in signing on to the health-care deal.
The agreements in principle are a first step to completing the $196-billion, 10-year health-care funding proposal that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made on Feb. 7.
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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said in a written statement that the agreement will support her government’s efforts to improve health care.
“We are leading the country in health-care reform and are focused on ensuring Albertans can access world-class care when and where they need it,” she said.
“This is a productive first step and I look forward to continued discussions with the government of Canada on how we can achieve longer-term sustainable funding.”
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During a news conference on Monday afternoon, Smith said while the federal government’s initial proposal wasn’t as much as the provinces were hoping for, it was a “proactive first step.”
“While important details still need to be discussed, we are confident that Alberta will be provided sufficient policy flexibility under the agreement to deliver in areas of shared interest,” she said.
“We are also glad to see that the government of Canada will work with Alberta to streamline foreign credentials recognition for internationally educated health professionals and assist with labour mobility for health professionals.”
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Smith said the provinces set a high bar in their ask of the federal government. And, while the federal government response was “only a fraction,” Smith indicated it’s a workable starting point.
She said a meeting with federal counterparts last week was “very positive… particularly when we were talking about our approach to mental health and addiction.”
The premier said the federal officials seemed pleased to hear Alberta had as many free in-patient beds as it does.
And, Smith said they seemed satisfied with how Alberta already uses data to track progress and outcomes.
“We are so far ahead on metrics relative to other jurisdictions.”
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In the same news conference, Health Minister Jason Copping said the federal agreements will help accelerate the work Alberta is already doing, specifically its focus on mental health and addictions, primary care, health human resources — “to make sure we have the people, particularly in rural areas, to provide the service” — continuing care and home-based care.
He said Alberta would have preferred more funding from Ottawa but also noted “we have a lot of shared interests.”
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Shannon Phillips, Opposition finance critic, held a news conference in Calgary on Monday morning to discuss her expectations from the Alberta government when it unveils the provincial budget on Tuesday.
“There is no question that we’ve seen a lot of chaos and instability in health care due to UCP cuts,” she said in response to a question about the health-funding agreement.
“Those cuts have come about as a result of giving away billions to already profitable corporations and are fundamentally a disrespect of public health care in a war with front-line workers.
“Anything that can stabilize that funding, I think, is a positive thing.
“But what we need to ask ourselves is: what happens next? Do we really trust Danielle Smith and the UCP to make sure that we are investing in public health care in a way that makes sure that we can see a doctor or other health professional within a couple of days? I believe the answer to that is no,” Phillips said.
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Also Monday, Smith released an update from John Cowell, who was hired to lead Alberta Health Services after she fired the governing board in November, citing poor performance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Cowell said the system is seeing incremental but measurable improvements in key stress areas.
He said emergency response wait times are now averaging 17 minutes rather than almost 22 minutes, and the wait time to see a doctor in an emergency ward has fallen by about 10 per cent.
Cowell said the number of patients waiting longer than the critically recommended times has decreased by more than nine per cent.
He credited the improvements to more staff, more ambulances and triaging 911 emergency calls to other health providers to free up paramedics for the most urgent cases.
“We’ve still got more work to do,” Cowell said.
“We need more runway. The next three months are going to be critical to keep showing you results month on month.”
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The Opposition NDP said the numbers aren’t painting a true picture of a health system that remains in dire straits, with 32 hospitals partially closed due to staffing shortages while women in rural Alberta have to travel great distances to give birth.
“What progress they are claiming in emergency rooms is largely due to the seasonal retreat of respiratory illnesses,” said Lori Sigurdson, who is the NDP’s seniors, housing mental health and addictions critic.
“The truth is the UCP have starved and attacked our health-care system for almost four years,” she said, noting the government tore up the contract with doctors three years ago and fought to cut nurses’ wages during the pandemic.
The NDP also said that hearing the premier say “AHS is not in crisis” shows how “out of touch with Albertans she really is.”
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Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), said the UCP’s update was “both encouraging and frustrating.”
“We are happy to see our call to hire more professionals is finally resulting in action. But the government’s plan goes nowhere near far enough,” he wrote in a statement. “Just a few months ago, this government was proposing up to 11 per cent wage rollbacks for our members.
“If they are serious about increasing staffing, they need to get serious about improving working conditions.”
Parker also wants to see the data behind the reported decrease in red alerts.
“The government talks about performance measures but doesn’t explain the numbers. Are red alerts dropping because they stopped counting stacked calls? Why don’t red alerts that happen outside Edmonton and Calgary get counted?
“Our members aren’t seeing these improvements. What our members tell me is that things are a bit better than they were at the worst of the crisis, but we are still far away from Albertans having the access to care they deserve and working conditions that will keep our members healthy — our measure of success.”
— With files from Emily Mertz, Global News