There was a whiff of desperation in the air at Jason Kenney’s health care news conference yesterday morning, which had been touted in advance to journalists as “an update on priority work to build health system capacity and add more critical care beds for Albertans.”
It turned out to be a stale re-announcement of a promise in last February’s provincial budget to add 50 new intensive-care-unit beds throughout Alberta, with the only real news being that 19 of them have now been completed and opened.
This is not a bad thing, but it does not solve the crisis now bedevilling health care in Alberta – an acute shortage of medical staff, in particular nurses, that is resulting in horrendous Emergency Room waits, parking-lot paramedicine, cancelled surgeries, exhausted health care workers forced to work mandatory overtime and pondering leaving their professions, high costs, and an impending feeling of doom that is starting to frighten voters.
Late as usual for the 9 a.m. news conference in a partly completed construction site at Calgary’s Rockyview Hospital, Mr. Kenney didn’t look as if he was feeling all that well. Hospital beds arranged helter-skelter behind him had the appearance of a minimalist set for a post-modern theatrical production.
Social media wits speculated that putting empty hospital beds in an unfinished renovation site must have been the inspiration of desperate political aides who couldn’t find any medical workers willing to show up and support the premier. This is in fact quite plausible.
The political bosses did bring along Gregory Turnbull, chair of the Alberta Health Services Board, and a couple of senior AHS managers to decorate the stage. The news release included an uninformative boilerplate quote from Mauro Chies, the interim president and CEO of Alberta Health Services who replaced the respected Verna Yiu, fired by the UCP apparently because she was too effective an advocate for public health care.
Someone should have bought the premier a double espresso and made him drink it. The next time the United Conservative Party strategic brain trust tries to design a theatrical set, they should hire the services of a professional dramaturge!
It didn’t take long before it was clear the Kenney Government has no idea how to deal with the crisis – this, too, is no surprise, as it wouldn’t be easy for any government to fix, let alone this one.
But the work can’t really start until someone admits there is a crisis – something the UCP is not prepared to do.
Above all, the solution requires more medical professionals, especially nurses, be hired. Without them, hospital beds are just furniture.
But there is a worldwide shortage of qualified nurses, who the market says can now command high salaries and secure jobs in places willing to make it worth their while.
Instead, the Kenney Government has spent much of the past three years making Alberta as unwelcoming as possible to nurses and physicians.
Before the pandemic, acting on government orders, Alberta Health Services warned the union that represents most Registered Nurses it planned to eliminate the jobs of 750 RNs throughout the system. Then AHS started contract negotiations with United Nurses of Alberta by demanding retroactive pay cuts! The government’s war with doctors saw the health minister of the day arbitrarily tear up their contract, an act for which the UCP has never been forgiven by many physicians.
Those actions have consequences that continue to be felt, even though AHS eventually signed a collective agreement with United Nurses of Alberta that dropped the demand for pay cuts and contract rollbacks and even included a modest pay increase.
Today, the health care system couldn’t operate without using high-cost “agency nurses” with temporary contracts who are paid as much as $100 an hour.
The Opposition drew the obvious conclusion: “Thanks to Jason Kenney and the UCP, we don’t have enough staff to operate the beds we already have, or the ambulances we already have, or the primary care clinics we already have,” said NDP Finance Critic Shannon Phillips in a response to the update.
“The UCP war on front-line professionals has created a profound crisis in health care,” she said in a news release. “There are 21 communities in Alberta right now where the hospital is partially closed due to staff shortages caused by the UCP.”
In the government’s news release, Mr. Kenney said: “We promised to build a stronger health-care system for Albertans and we are delivering on that promise.” It sure doesn’t feel like it, though.
“AHS plans to recruit to fill another 425 clinical and support service positions to support the total bed numbers,” said the news release. But where are they going to find them?
“COVID-19 is still putting pressure on Alberta hospitals, but we’re countering that with a bold plan to ensure our health system is resilient and can respond to any health crisis,” said Health Minister Jason Copping. There is no evidence of a bold plan, though, or much of a plan at all beyond privatizing surgical services, an ideological solution that will only work as long as the government pours money into it.
If you doubt the continued emphasis on privatization, consider the responses to a reporter’s question about what kind of manager the AHS Board wants to replace Dr. Yiu.
“We need to transform our system,” said Mr. Copping. “…And we need to drive that transformation quickly.” His answer was sometimes almost incoherent, but the privatization jargon that popped out of his mouth was revealing: Innovative, transformational, flexible.
“We’re embarking on a local, national and international search,” said the Board chair, Mr. Turnbull. “We’re really looking at someone who’s a visionary leader. … We’re looking for a unicorn in some ways.”
Remember, though, if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s almost certainly not a unicorn.
Alert readers will also recall that the last time Alberta embarked on an international search for a transformational health leader who was something of a unicorn … we got a cookie monster!