Community members and health-care professionals gathered on Jan. 23 at the Coast Hotel in Lethbridge for the first of 45 in-person engagement sessions to be hosted throughout the province by the Government of Alberta.
The sessions looked to get input from the community on the health-care system and the overhaul that was announced in November of last year.
During her introduction, Minister of Health Adriana LaGrange emphasized the importance of public feedback saying, “The goal of these in-person engagement sessions really is to dig deeper into our current health-care system to look at what’s working, what’s not working and what kind of solutions may exist to improve or eliminate the challenges.”
Calling the discussions “critical” she told attendees, “The future of healthcare is in your hands,” adding, “We know the current system is broken, or at the very least not doing well, but for too long we’ve seen our nurses, doctors and health-care teams buckle under the strains and stresses of an inefficient health-care system.”
Stresses to the health-care system have been an ongoing concern for Albertans, with rural emergency rooms regularly closed due to a lack of physician availability. Just hours prior to the event, the Milk River emergency room had announced its temporary closure scheduled to last until Wednesday morning.
When asked what was currently being done to address these closures, Assistant Deputy Minister of Health System Refocusing Matthew Hebert was unable to comment.
Of the 45 engagement sessions listed on the Government of Alberta website, more than half are scheduled during the day, which could impact participation. Of those during the day, all are rural locations. Only nine of the engagement sessions are scheduled after 5 p.m., including Edmonton and Calgary events.
Following LaGrange’s address – which included an anecdote about 27 patients at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton who occupied beds because they were unable to access other supports due to issues filing their taxes – Hebert presented an overview of the planned restructuring and what issues in the current health system needed to be rectified.
Among the reasons for the restructure was the concern that despite spending per capita aligning with similar provinces, health outcomes were not as expected, in addition to long wait times – especially in rural areas and Indigenous communities, a complicated health care system, and leadership needing improvement.
Though barriers of access for Indigenous communities were a key concern, it was not specified whether any consultation with the Indigenous community has occurred or is planned for the future.
The overhaul will include four pillar organizations: Primary Care, Continuing Care, Acute Care, and Mental Health and Addictions. Under the umbrella of the Primary Care Organization, the government intends to ensure every Albertan is attached to a care provider, and “ensure accountability for all publicly funded providers and clinics.”
Additionally, the primary care level is intended to “support Alberta Health in determining alternative payment models.”
The other organizations of care look to improve access to services and will contract third-party service providers with the provincial government maintaining oversight. Alberta Health Services will only provide primary and continuing care in rural areas where necessary.
Herbert highlighted in his presentation that the overhaul is intended to meet the needs of current Alberta residents while also managing the demands of a growing population.
Since 2019, the population of Alberta has increased by nearly 42,000 people, with much of that growth attributed to the “Alberta is Calling” campaign that targeted those in urban centres like Vancouver and Toronto and encouraged them to move to Alberta.
Despite that growth – and taking into consideration the 13.73 per cent inflation rate – the 2023 health-care budget has only increased by 1.71 billion as compared to 2019, when the current government was elected.
Herbert said “we’re looking forward to getting that direct feedback from the public just to inform how we will continue over the coming years to build and establish the new health care system.”
Members of the media were not permitted to attend the community discussion and feedback portion of the event.