An Alberta Health Services ambulance (Photo: Mitchell Smith, Creative Commons).

Is the Kenney Government’s determination to force reluctant municipalities to turn over 9-1-1 calls to a provincial Emergency Medical Services dispatch centre a prelude to privatization of provincial ambulance services?

It’s certainly unlikely to be the paltry $6 million the United Conservative Party Government claims this will save, especially given the high political cost of fighting municipalities infuriated by the plan foisted on them last fall by Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro.

Fort McMurray Mayor Don Scott and Jason Kenney in happier times (Photo: Facebook).

Last week, citing deteriorating ambulance service, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo stopped directing calls to the consolidated provincial EMS dispatch service. A defiant Don Scott, mayor of the region that includes Fort McMurray, dared the government to fire him for his council’s unanimous decision to go back to dispatching local EMS calls locally.

Instead, lawyers for the provincial health ministry and Alberta Health Services, the province-wide public health agency that now runs the centralized EMS dispatch system from call centres in Calgary, Edmonton and Grande Prairie, asked an Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench judge for an injunction ordering the rebellious municipal council to follow orders. 

The calculation by Premier Jason Kenney’s issues managers seems to have been that no matter how unhappy Mr. Scott and his council colleagues are with ambulances being dispatched to the wrong addresses or not turning up at all, they’re less likely to risk a fight with a superior court judge than a bunch of politicians in Edmonton.

Since as long as it does the paperwork right the province has the power to set up a centralized dispatch service for ambulances if it wants to, there’s not much any municipality can do to stop the unpopular change. 

On Friday, Justice Kent Davidson granted a temporary injunction to AHS, ordering WBRM to go back to transferring calls at noon on Saturday. The municipality gets to make its case on March 9, when the government seeks a permanent injunction, but its chances aren’t good. 

With the deal all but done, the UCP obviously calculates rebels like Mr. Scott and those in other places who might emulate him will drop it. 

Which brings us back to the question of why an unpopular government would push an unpopular policy unlikely to win it many friends among its normal allies on small-centre municipal councils. 

Health Minister Tyler Shandro (Government of Alberta).

The only way the UCP’s stubborn persistence with this policy really makes sense is if it sets the stage for something else, to wit, privatization of the provincial ambulance service.

Neoliberal nostrums to the contrary, it’s highly doubtful that would make service more efficient, or save taxpayers money. It’s about as likely to be popular with voters as privatizing the fire department. But it might create the impression money is being saving at the provincial level – by transferring costs to municipalities and people who have to call an ambulance. 

And never doubt the importance of market fundamentalist ideology to this government. It would let the UCP weaken the union that represents EMS personnel, allow false claims of wage savings by shuffling public employees into the private sector, lower essential workers’ wages as Mr. Kenney promised, and potentially win generous friends in the private emergency services business. 

Centralized dispatch sets the stage for privatization by allowing the government to claim all provincial locations are properly covered even though the service is delivered by multiple fleets of private ambulances.

Former AHS CEO Stephen Duckett (Photo: David J. Climenhaga, Creative Commons).

The same concern was raised in 2009 when then AHS CEO Stephen Duckett – the plain spoken Australian “cookie monster” later fired for saying what he thought by the Progressive Conservative government of the day – brought municipal ambulance services across the province under the provincial umbrella. 

“Albertans will see no difference in the excellent service provided by highly trained professionals, and will continue to access ambulance services by dialing 9-1-1,” the Progressive Conservative government promised when it implemented Dr. Duckett’s plan. That turned out not to be quite true in every part of Alberta. 

On Monday, Brian Jean, former Wildrose leader, Fort Mac MLA and MP, and Mr. Kenney’s rival to lead the UCP, weighed in.

“I will never be convinced that Edmonton can run Wood Buffalo’s ambulance dispatch better than the local community,” he wrote in Fort McMurray Today. 

Former Wildrose leader and current Kenney critic Brian Jean (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Mr. Jean has resurfaced lately as a sharp critic of Premier Kenney. He attributed the government’s effort to an “anti-conservative tendency to reduce competition and create centralized monopolies” and called on Mr. Shandro to “to reverse his decision and stop this.”

The evidence of what the UCP is really up to is more likely illuminated by a letter from AHS received in the fall of 2019 by the union that represents AHS EMS personnel. 

“In advance of 2020 collective bargaining commencing, we wish to provide information on a number of initiatives that could impact the AHS workforce and specifically the Paramedical Professional/Technical bargaining unit,” the AHS executive director of labour relations said in the letter to the Health Sciences Association of Alberta.

Under the heading “Potential Contracting Out Initiatives That May be Considered in the Future,” letter included “emergency and  non-emergency response and patient transfer.”

Health Sciences Association of Alberta President Mike Parker (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The same day, HSAA President Mike Parker warned his union’s EMS members, “the UCP government is exploring options to privatize EMS in the province.”

“AHS has informed HSAA that it is exploring the following steps,” Mr. Parker wrote. They included, “contracting out emergency, non-emergency and all patient transfer ambulance service, which will result in downsizing.”

Mr. Parker noted his personal frustration that EMS was not under the provincial umbrella when the health regions were consolidated into AHS.

This latest UCP fight, it’s said here, suggests the plan Mr. Parker feared is about to be implemented.

Still, Mr. Parker and Mr. Jean might be able to find some common ground on this one. 

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  1. There is a history of consolidation of paramedic services, including dispatch, in Alberta. This goes back to Ralph Klein and it was a total disaster. Graham Thompson wrote about this in the Edmonton Journal, in the 2000s. Ralph Klein said it would cost the province a mere $55 million, and then it ended up having a price tag of $125 million. The service was shoddy, and lives were jeopardized. If someone ever tried calling for a paramedic, when they saw someone on the streets needing medical attention, they would understand what I’m talking about. Why are the UCP so intent on repeating this failure? As far as I know, there were four ministers of health in Alberta, going back to the two previous provincial governments. They looked at consolidation of paramedic services in Alberta, including the dispatch, and they tossed the idea away, because they knew it was a bad idea, based on some type of study into the matter. The UCP is so intent on going ahead with this, regardless of how risky it is proven to be. Ralph Klein had full intentions of bringing private for profit healthcare in Alberta. That’s why he laid off a whole load of nurses, and didn’t properly look after hospitals in Alberta. The UCP is trying to fulfill that goal. Remember Janice MacKinnon? She was on the UCP’s Blue Ribbon Panel. She was in the NDP cabinet in Saskatchewan and was responsible for closing down so many rural hospitals in Saskatchewan. That NDP government was trying to rectify the financial damages caused by a previous PC government in Saskatchewan, by emulating Ralph Klein’s slash and burn policies. Also, Gordon Dirks happened to be a former Saskatchewan PC MLA who then joined the Alberta PCs. It seems to be coming full circle in Alberta. The UCP is looking to make private for profit health care in Alberta come to fruition. It is a very foolish thing to do. Consolidation of paramedic services and dispatch in Alberta isn’t going to save money, and will only jeopardize lives in the process. The UCP also halted the NDP’s start of a super lab in the Edmonton area. Again, when testing for certain medical conditions has to be done, it will have to go outside of the province, putting more lives at risk. There were warnings about how bad the UCP were going to be, prior to the UCP being elected (cheating their way into power, is more like it) and people who gave those warnings were mocked. They cannot say they weren’t warned, when they complain about the poor results they will get under the UCP government.

  2. Of course privatization of ambulance dispatch is on the agenda. Everything in Alberta is for sale. Even the blood of our citizens is for sale. If it can be commodified, it will be commodified. This is a kleptocracy. Let’s make a deal!

    Who needs conspiracy theories? The reality of Alberta is much more horrifying and bizarre: “Pimp my Province”.

  3. I think that we will witness more of this in the near future. The UCP is against the wall and now they will try anything to implement their blind neo-liberal garbage no matter what so they leave the province in the hands of private interests and make any reversal almost impossible. They do not care at all about what makes more sense or even what is more efficient and cheaper or our interests at all. The only objective now is to turn Alberta in their view of paradise.
    This of course is not new and we all know the results so far.

  4. Rather looks like the UCP is proposing to make Alberta into a “social-Darwinist” fiefdom. What with people over the age of 82 being negligible to other persons with medical needs being readily ignored prompt EMS services, one might get the impression that ‘culling’ the ‘surplus population’ is what’s on the agenda behind closed UCP doors and minds.

  5. Privatized fire services with be hilarious.

    Caller: Help! My house is on fire!!

    Dispatch: Sorry to hear that. We’ll send a truck shortly — please provide a valid credit card number before we can authorize a dispatch to your location. There will be a $5,000 non-refundable deposit in the event of a false alarm…

  6. Looks like Lord Jason will soon need another deflection attempt; he’s over-utilized “Blame Justin!” and you can only announce expanding a park so often (suspicious timing, wouldn’t you say?). This bunch is so oblivious that “tone-deaf” doesn’t come close. Let me borrow from David Weber: these guys are “mind-blind”!

  7. would make sense from Jason’s point of view. It also takes a wack out of unions. In B.C. all those working in the ambulances are unionized. Privitization would eliminate that, it would provide for lower salaries and more profits for the corporations. It would enable American corporations to apply on the contracts. It would also cost Albertans their lives. If ambulances were privitized, so would be the workers and what would the standards be? Who would surprise the qualifications of paramedics? Would fire departments in rural areas be notified for back up, if necessary? Who would set the fees? Now I’m sure jason would tell the citizens of Alberta the province would, but you can bet that will change. companies will make cases they need higher fees in some areas, most likely rural. some areas may simply not be covered given the remoteness and lack of profit.

    Some time ago, may have even been on this blog, that 42% of Alberta doctors wanted to leave. Just as COVID was getting a nice start last year, jason wanted to make a few changes to how nurses worked.

    If the ambulance services are privitized in Alberta, people can kiss their asses good by. I can remember private ambulance services in B.C. prior to it becoming part of government services. Paramedics simply weren’t as good as they are today. People didn’t call ambulances because they had to pay up front prior to being taken to hospital. Private corporations may bid on an area or the whole province and then suddenly decide not to service a particular area because its too expensive. what happens then? How would private amublance services deal with a pandemic.

    The people of Alberta voted for jason, so they can die because of it or learn to live with it, but one way or anther things will not be pleasant.

    We saw shades of this in B.C. when el gordo, upon assuming power back in 2001 fired all hospital cleaners. They worked for the government. It was the largest mass firing of females in Canadian history. What did the people of B.C. get out of it? Dirty hospitals. They’re still dirty. You can go into grocery stores and find cleaner operations.

    Privitization is a method of rewarding the financial supporters of the party who is doing the privitization. In B.C., Christy Clark privitized the laundry of hospitals in the O.K. Gave the contract to a company which was not unknown to her, for 20 years.

  8. I don’t know what the motivations of the UCP are here, but it does seem odd they would endure more political damage at a time when they can ill afford it, for savings that not that significant and perhaps questionable. It actually would have been fairly easy for them to put this move on hold, so I also have to wonder if this was or is part of a larger plan.

    My suspicion is the UCP has, as one political commentator said a while ago, lost the plot. I believe their original plan was probably to do many controversial things like privatize this in 2020, far enough away from the next election so it could perhaps be forgotten by then. Of course, COVID disrupted everything, so they have essentially lost a year in their plans such as this. As they attempt to get back to their original plans, the timing no longer works so well.

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