With EMS “red alerts” spiking in Alberta and both Calgary and Edmonton running out of ambulances to respond to emergencies roughly every 90 minutes, Health Minister Jason Copping yesterday announced he’s forming an advisory committee to study how to improve ambulance services in Alberta.
To be fair, Mr. Copping also announced a “10-point plan” he says will help “to quickly add capacity to EMS.” But not that quickly, probably, as the committee headed by two United Conservative Party MLAs, neither from Calgary or Edmonton, won’t have to report until May.
Moreover, since literally half of the 10-point plan lists policies that have already been implemented to limited effect so far, the jury must remain out on how much impact this part of yesterday’s announcement may have.
Several of the points in both parts of the 10-point plan seem more aspirational than practical – for example, “developing a strategic provincial service plan for EMS delivery.”
Still, the Kenney Government is obviously seriously worried about the public’s perception that Alberta’s ambulance service has seriously deteriorated since it forced Lethbridge, Calgary, Red Deer and Fort McMurray in 2020 to join the province-wide dispatch system run by Alberta Health Services that was imposed by Ed Stelmach’s Progressive Conservative government in 2009.
Things got so bad a year ago that the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo – the somewhat confusing official name for Fort McMurray and environs – went rogue for a few days and refused to hand off calls to the three AHS centralized dispatch centres.
If you want a hint of just how worried the government is, its news release yesterday included 14 canned quotes from worthies associated with the government or various stakeholder groups. Clearly the UCP wants to give the impression that everybody’s on board with the committee’s work.
Earlier yesterday, the Opposition NDP published the results of a Freedom of Information request that showed Calgary and Edmonton saw 2,276 EMS red alerts between Aug. 1 and Dec. 6, 2021, an average of more than 17 per day.
This was a significant increase over nine red alerts recorded daily on average in Calgary in 2020.
In the first six days of December, the NDP said, Calgary and Edmonton experienced 31 red alerts every day.
Red alerts are the code used by Alberta Health Services to describe times when there are no ambulances available to respond to emergency calls.
“That is an unacceptable failure from the UCP,” said Opposition Health Critic David Shepherd.
At his news conference, Mr. Copping blamed the Omicron COVID-19 surge and holdups of ambulance parts in the sclerotic global supply chain as reasons for the situation getting worse. The news release admitted to a 30-per-cent increase in the number of EMS calls, but it didn’t provide a time frame in which that had taken place beyond “over the last several months.”
At a news conference half an hour after the government’s, the president of the paramedics’ union pronounced himself “cautiously optimistic” about Mr. Copping’s plan of action.
“I do have some concerns, though,” Health Sciences Association of Alberta President Mike Parker said, adding that there is nothing in the plan that is going to immediately support reduced response times. “What I need to hear is what is going to impact, today, response times.”
As for the NDP, Mr. Shepherd pointed to the dispatch consolidation and the government’s “consistent attacks on front-line health care, including their war with doctors and health care professionals,” as major contributors to the deterioration in service.
He called on the government to begin reporting red alerts to the public daily, and to restore the Hospital EMS Liaison Officers Program that was scrapped by the UCP in October 2019. Under that plan, announced by the NDP government in 2018, hospitals were assigned liaison officers in Emergency Rooms to free up paramedics for other calls more quickly.
Mr. Copping’s 10-point plan also included items that don’t sound all that reassuring, including stopping the automatic dispatch of ambulances to vehicle crashes where injuries have not been reported, sending ambulances from rural areas directly back to their communities even if they’re closer to another call than other available ambulances, allowing ambulances that have already been dispatched to be pre-empted by other calls, and transferring low-priority calls to other agencies. (Say what? More fire truck rides?)
In addition, other points such as “pilot projects to manage non-emergency inter-facility transfers” and “a pilot project in Red Deer that will manage most patient transfers between facilities with dedicated transfer units” smack of coded language for privatization.
The committee – co-chaired by UCP Caucus members R.J. Sigurdson, MLA for Highwood, and Tracy Allard, MLA for Grande Prairie – will report in May. Exactly who its other members will be, however, was left unclear by Mr. Copping yesterday.
Ms. Allard was briefly minister of municipal affairs before being pushed out of cabinet by Premier Jason Kenney after taking mid-pandemic Hawaiian winter holiday in 2020.
Retired judge appointed to investigate Kaycee Madu’s notorious phone call
Retired judge Adèle Kent will investigate Justice Minister Kaycee Madu’s famously injudicious phone call about his distracted-driving-in-a-school-zone ticket to Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee, the Premier’s Office said in a news release yesterday.
The former justice of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench retired last year.
Whether or not an investigation of Mr. Madu’s phone call is needed is a controversial topic in Alberta, where the opinion is widely held that his decision to contact Chief McFee about his traffic ticket was such an obvious breach that he should have been fired from cabinet on the spot.
The details of the call, which the justice minister made in March 2021, were well known for months by nearly everyone in the Premier’s Office and UCP cabinet. They were only revealed to the public, however, when the CBC broke the story week ago.
Ms. Kent has been instructed to report her findings by Feb. 15.
Ms. Kent is the sister of former Conservative MP Peter Kent, who served in Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet alongside Jason Kenney from 2011 to 2013.