Nineteen of 50 new critical care beds promised in Alberta are now open and the remainder are expected to be operational by September, Premier Jason Kenney said Friday.
“These beds are staffed with new registered nurses, health-care aides, unit clerks, respiratory therapists and other allied health-care professionals who will keep those beds open when needed. And when demand and pressure slows down, there’s flexibility to redeploy staff to other areas where needs for care and treatment are higher.”
The new beds are part of $300 million earmarked over three years in the recent provincial budget, said Kenney, noting that despite having one of the highest levels of health-care spending in the country, Alberta had among the fewest number of ICU beds per capita.
“That did not serve us well through the COVID crisis,” he said. “Because during various peaks we were at risk of running out of ICU capacity. We had to pause and delay surgeries in order to create the surge capacity we needed to provide critical care to COVID-19 patients … So there’s something profoundly wrong with one of the most expensive systems in the world having such a low number of ICU beds.”
But beds without staff aren’t much help, and critics argue Friday’s announcement isn’t doing enough to address Alberta’s number one problem.
Staffing shortages were already prevalent in the province before the pandemic, and most say they’re only getting worse in 2022.
Health-care staff have raised concerns about what they call unprecedented emergency room wait times and ambulance delays that are putting the system’s stability at risk.
“(The province) has been so aggressive towards doctors, nurses and healthcare workers, and it’ll be tough to turn it around,” Friends of Medicare executive director Chris Gallaway told CTV News. “They’re not doing anything to really change that mood. That feeling of respect. That burnout.”
The new ICU beds are fully staffed, but a lot of the new employees have been pulled from other places in the health system.
“So really, they’ve just moved the issue there. They’re not doing anything to address the real issues of staffing.”
“We fully appreciate that we are going to need to attract and retain more,” Health Minister Jason Copping said. “Hiring is happening, and I can tell you that there is a number of strategies that are being used to bring on more (health care professionals).”
Alberta Health Services has budgeted for 2,800 new overall positions, but recruitment is still an obstacle.
The opposition NDP believes prior behaviour by the provincial government makes Alberta a difficult place to retain and attract talent.
“We don’t enough staff to operate the beds we already have,” MLA Shannon Phillips said. “You can’t rebuild a system that you deliberately undermined if you don’t, in the first instance, have respect for frontline health-care workers.”
The premier says a “big surge” in terms of training and recruitment is ongoing. He chalks a lot of the staffing problems up to retirement and says he’s confident they can be repaired. That’ll start, according to the premier, with Alberta students and those already in the system.
A recent report showed wait times for surgeries in Canada has improved, but Alberta still lags behind other provinces when it comes to timelines for things like knee and hip replacements.
Alberta’s massive pandemic-related backlog is dropping, but Copping says it could take two years before 90 per cent of residents are able to have their surgery within an expert-recommended “target time.”
At its height, the wait list was around 81,600 people.
As of the end of April, that list was under 73,000.