Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary (Photo: Twitter).

Alberta’s Kenney Government has an instinctive ability to make things worse in a crisis. 

Much worse.

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre (Photo: Red Deer Regional Health Foundation).

Consider the capacity crisis now roiling Alberta’s hospitals.

As of Friday, surgical patients at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre were being diverted to other hospitals, many well out of the Central Alberta region. Even appendectomies had to be sent away from Alberta’s third largest city, located halfway between Edmonton and Calgary 

“Earlier this week, ambulances lined up 14 deep in the Red Deer hospital parking lot waiting to reach emergency care,” Opposition NDP Health Critic David Shepherd told media on Friday after Red Deer paramedics were forced to practice parking lot medicine.

Alberta Health Services’ spokesperson insisted the problem is only temporary – although, under the circumstances, what else could he say? “We acknowledge that this will cause some stress and anxiety to some of our surgical patients, however, we have exhausted all efforts to avoid this temporary diversion,” Kerry Williamson told media. 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, whose political health is the only thing that matters to the UCP cabinet right now (Photo: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr).

Meanwhile, a frightening letter sent to media Friday by front-line health care workers described triage lineups extending out the door of the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary. “Sick kids standing outside in the rain,” the unsigned letter said. “It is taking 2-3 hours just to be triaged adding to astronomical waiting times.”

“Patients are coming by private vehicle because when they call for an ambulance they are being told there aren’t any,” the letter says. “There are no available ambulances on the road. Let that sink in …” 

The things described in the letter can be confirmed. The author signed off: “We need nurses now. We need doctors now. We need more first responders now. We need more support staff now. We need more security staff now. We need more bed capacity now. We need more mental health beds now. The ship is sinking and we are all going down with it …”

Almost province-wide, the ambulance service seems to have ground to a near halt. Staff shortages are rampant in hospitals throughout the province. Long Emergency Room wait times are being experienced everywhere. 

And what has Alberta’s United Conservative Party done about it? 

Fired Alberta Health Services CEO Verna Yiu (Photo: David Cournoyer).

Why, they’ve fired the competent, universally respected president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, the province-wide health authority!

Verna Yiu was probably the ideal person to lead AHS in a crisis like the one the organization now faces. She was trusted by every major group in the health care system. She had led the organization with a steady hand since her appointment in 2016. A year ago, AHS had extended her appointment for an additional two years.

So why would they suddenly fire her? 

Naturally, Premier Jason Kenney, Health Minister Jason Copping and the rest of the UCP cabinet have had little to say. But there were obviously two reasons:

1.     To mollify the UCP’s vocal and aggressive anti-vaccine base, which had targeted Dr. Yiu for her decision to mandate COVID-19 inoculations for staff during the pandemic, as Premier Kenney tries desperately to hang onto his job in the party leadership review vote for which mail-in balloting is continuing.

2.     To replace Dr. Yiu, who is known to strongly support public health care, with a CEO more likely to cooperate with the UCP’s extensive privatization plans – including for many surgical procedures. 

Alberta NDP Health Critic David Shepherd (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The UCP speaks the truth, though, when it complains that this crisis has been building for years, through the latter years of the Progressive Conservative governing dynasty, through the four years of the NDP Government, and up to the present. 

But when the NDP was in government, AHS under then health minister Sarah Hoffman implemented measures to reduce the staffing problems in Red Deer, where they have long been particularly severe. In recent months, though, staff shortages have been allowed to grow in Red Deer again. 

But this is where the UCP’s peculiar genius for acting in the wrong way at the wrong time to make a crisis spectacularly worse comes into play. 

Even a government trying to save its own bacon and implement controversial privatization plans would have been smart to slow down and leave a trusted, capable executive in place just as the crisis in the health care system started to turn into a catastrophe. 

Not these guys!

Former NDP health minister Sarah Hoffman (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The problems facing health care in Alberta are not going to be easy, inexpensive, or quick to fix. 

Probably the only effective thing that can be done in the short term is to beg health care workers to stick around by persuading them their efforts are respected and things are going to get better.

Dr. Yiu might have been able to do that. A UCP cabinet bent on privatization, union busting, and covering its own collective backside, not so much. 

But with the UCP, it’s all politics, all of the time, and the consequences be damned. 

After the leadership review, the party will have to cope with either a leadership race to replace Mr. Kenney or the premier’s next desperate project, to survive a general election. 

While that goes on, zero attention will be paid to keeping health care afloat. Don’t blame nurses and other health care professionals if they decide to abandon ship.

Join the Conversation

28 Comments

  1. You act like theres no wait times anywhere else in canada. You want a story? Talk about canada euthanizing the poor and disabled, or are you glad we use MAID to take pressure off of wasteful hospitals??? Im disabled. Canada wants me dead. Maybe I’ll blow my brains out on the Leg steps like that veteran did…

    1. Depressed&Worthless: Where are they euthanising the poor and disabled in Canada? A nurse in Ontario was charged with murdering elderly people at continuing care facilities, but that’s about it.

      1. Across the country! Read the news!!!!!! TWO women, one ALREADY DEAD, picked MAID because they couldnt AFFORD to move into a place that didnt make their MS worse. Canada WONT pay a living wage to disabled people, but we will euthanize them. READ THE NEWS. The story ran (is running) all over. CTV most recently. We are the laughing stock of the developed world.

    2. I’ve had two day surgeries in perennially doctor poor BC interior this year already. I wonder what my chances would have been like in Red Deer?

    3. Dear Depressed: anywhere there are or have been Conservatives in power, publicly delivered health care is being sabotaged. Rather than hurt yourself, go after your local UCP MLA. They are the ones making the lives of the handicapped, infirm, and so many others miserable. You deserve the full support of the Government of Alberta and you are not getting it. Turn your anger outwards towards the UCP/Cons harming you.

    4. Please excuse my assumptions, but, you sound like you’re suffering from depression and you should find someone to talk with. I understand that it can seem like people, especially people who have needs that exceed what other people seem to need, are considered a problem rather than people deserving of assistance, but I assure you that those on the front line are there to help and will do all that they can. I can also assure you that MAID is not something that will be forced on people. It is an option for those whose future appears to be limited and painful, not a policy to kill the inconvenient. If your desire is to face your future with whatever circumstances may come then you should be supported in doing just that!

      Remember that mental health is no different from physical health there is no shame in seeking help!- the brain is just another organ. Here’s some phone numbers that you could use to seek some help:

      AHS Mental Health Help Line 1-877-303-2642
      Canada Suicide Prevention Service 1-833-456-4566
      Indigenous Hope Line 1-855-242-3310
      National Trans Lifeline 1-877-565-8860
      211 Alberta: to find programs and services in your community

      It is true that our current health care system is set up not to “waste resources” on patients that they consider to have low viability, but the people involved will move heaven and earth to find the resources you may need if they’re available. Good luck and I hope that we can disagree on health care services for many years in good health and good humour!

    5. Hysterics aside, this is a problem. There was a good story about it somewhere, very recently – the Star or the Globe. It is indeed a problem when the poor and disabled choose MAID because they cannot afford to relieve their suffering.

  2. All due respect, I really wish people would stop referring to the UCP is incompetent. The health care crisis is NOT due to UCP incompetence. This is a deliberate and planned demolition of public health care by a group hell-bent on privatizing it.

    It’s the classic neoliberal playbook. Starve a public resource of funds, people get mad that it no longer works, which then leads to private “solutions” to fix the “crisis” created by the “inefficient” public sector.

    The UCP WANT people to think they are incompetent, because if people think they are just bumbling around, they’ll miss the larger ideological agenda at play.

    Please don’t feed that narrative. This is not incompetence, this crisis has been deliberately cultivated by the UCP for the purposes of finishing off public health care in Alberta.

    1. It can be both, neoliberalism and incompetence go hand in hand after all. The two are not mutually exclusive and anyone who thinks this is a competent government achieving their goals is a bit on the naive side.

    2. Alex C: The UCP aren’t incompetent? What does assuming that The Donald will still be America’s president, and then squandering $7.5 billion on KXL, tell you? That’s incompetence. The UCP have done many things to show they are incompetent.

    3. 100% agreement with your overall point, but I would argue that competence is no longer necessary for Neoliberals at this point in history. I see the most competent Neoliberals as resembling Bill Clinton or Justin Trudeau. They can still stand up in public and be taken seriously by the majority of adults… except the ones who think they’re radical leftists!

      Mr. Kenney would not be trusted to ride shotgun in a clown car. He’d get laughed off a pogo stick. He lacks the gravitas necessary to command a room during a kindergarten show and tell. The gravel-humping mendicants pillaging Alberta are not competent at all – even in a media landscape dominated by Postmedia, they still can’t hide their idiocy!

      Watching Albertan politics is like watching someone get rich running a “wallet inspector” con. Yes, the person running the con should be punished… but at some point in time, the people who think “Wallet inspector? That sounds real. Here ya go!” need to give their heads a shake.

  3. The message is loud and clear. The UCP will smash to smithereens what’s left of our health system. Do we understand, Albertans? Forget the fake Coroplast promises. Actions speak louder than words. Health care is going down with the sinking UCP ship. This is life or death. Some of you will die, but that is a price the UCP are willing to pay.

  4. All this does is place the condition of Alberta’s public healthcare back to where it was in the pre-pandemic phase, in a constant state of war with the UCP’s wanna-be like ‘Murcia crowd’s view of public healthcare.

    If you can pay for private health insurance and a private hospital, obviously you deserve to live. If not, thanks for playing the UCP’s ‘Game of Life’.

    The funny thing is that Kenney may still, in a desperate moment, continue to mention that he stands by his pre-election pledge to protect public healthcare. Well, he didn’t mean to actually protect it. Nooooooo…he meant to protect public healthcare by implementing a private option…that’s available to the public. Semantics, people.

      1. Sorry Larry: As anybody who has run a business knows, you need to add at least 40% to the price to cover your capital costs and profit. In a publicly provided system, that capital cost is simply a sunk cost which is absorbed in the Provincial budget and re-invested in facilities. In a privately provided service, that 40% disappears into some shareholder’s pocket in Chicago or Switzerland. So, not logical. You are making a category error. You fail logic 101.

  5. Thanks for another great column, David.

    Sadly, I am afraid the healthcare problems you have identified will be with us for awhile. If I was a newly graduated doctor, I would be very reluctant to set up a practice in Alberta, even with a health care-friendly government in place, simply because a change in government could have me looking for greener pastures.

  6. The truce has ended, with a vengeance. The UCP’s war on doctors is on, with a full-scale offensive against the front-line workers. Welcome to the world of Republican wishes come true.

    The worst part is that a large minority of Albertans (Alabama-wannabes?) still believe the UCP are doing the right thing. It’d be disgusting if it weren’t so scary.

  7. The UCP simply want to finish off Ralph Klein’s dreams of having private for profit healthcare in Alberta. Full on American style healthcare in Alberta, where if you aren’t rich, you suffer. How more foolish can you get? They are using their gross mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic in Alberta to do this. The Covid-19 numbers in Alberta don’t look so good either, and unfortunately, it’s going to get worse. The numbers won’t look great from here on out. They will go up even more.

  8. The UCP might be particularly bone-headed for making things worse, but if there’s a meanest scrap of political logic to it, this government must have a “peculiar genius” at knowing what it is.

    It might be ‘all-politics-all-the-time’ for the UCP (or at least for its currently beleaguered leader), but it’s hardly what any partisan position would call politic. Regardless one’s opinion about UCP policy, in the sense of getting it done it’s hardy political at all—at least not good politics. And because so much UCP policy ostentatiously provokes certain groups on purely ideological grounds—with brandished chauvinism, no less—like professional and unionized public healthcare providers, public university professors and school teachers—it looks more like getting purely partisan politics done instead of attending to the broad responsibility of governing for the public good. Such genius that plays divisive partisanship even within its own party is peculiar indeed.

    Depending on partisan point of view—within or from outside the UCP—the fact that the K-Boy is obviously too distracted by a certain schizophrenia (the party is cultivating it with self-imposed criticality) to govern, the confessed deficiency (“we have exhausted all efforts [ to bother with]” to avoid the hospital crisis, for example) can be cited as either an excuse or an accusation during leadership-review deliberations. Such genius as is peculiar to Jason Kenney might even take both positions in his own defence: ‘none of this is my fault, but if it is, then it’s your fault.’ Call it ‘special relativity.’

    But when the leadership review ballots arrive by mail and the results known in just a few weeks ( delayed a month after Team-K failed to block it), likely more than two camps will materialize to do lots and lots of blaming and accusing. (I suppose Mr K might argue that if a multi-front war is gonna happen anyway, he might as well be allowed to stay on for all the difference it’ll make. Probably some logic there—if the welfare of his province, his government, and his party were not so important.)

    What does K-Boy do to address the hospital crisis? Defend his position in the court of particularist American opinion, of course, after candidly vowing to take a cane to lunatics, nutcases and extremists in his party and caucus if he survives the review or wins a subsequent leadership contest. After that, he promises to come gunning for public healthcare personnel just as the wheels are coming off facilities everybody from cow punchers to unionized public sector workers want and need. Then he proposes to campaign for the remaining eleven months or less of his 2019 mandate against his rival party and leader who nearly doubles his own and the UCP’s popularity. If it sounds like he’s saying this situation isn’t his fault because he was off his meds for the past three years, or like he’s promising to make it all better by going back on them if he’s allowed to continue tilting at windmills from the back of a Soldier of Odium’s Harley with a full-patch Donald tRump hanging off the monkey bars, then what’s the worry? He has a such peculiar genius that it all makes perfect sense to him. We ordinary observers must accept at his word that that’s what he thinks.

    But even in the realm of rote corporatocracy, this guy would have been fired long ago. Reason? He’s misunderstood—or at least he says he is.

    Still ain’t gonna help the medicine go down. Just sayin’…

  9. I’m a specialist physician who works in that ER. The health care crisis (especially in pediatric mental health) was here before the pandemic; the crater-sized cracks in the system are finally exposed with the pandemic. Please know that it isn’t just covid that made this happen,
    It was just a matter of time for the crisis to reveal itself and covid accelerated the timeline.

    I can only encourage every Albertan to speak to their MLA about their fears for their health when there are no health care providers available for when they have an emergency, or looking for help before things accelerate to point od emergency.

    I already have a license to practice elsewhere in Canada. The less supported and supportive the work environment, the sooner I will seek out other practice opportunities.

    1. Stick-tap to you for being willing to practice in Alberta. It’s strange how the same population can be so entitled and privileged, yet so vulnerable and disenfranchised. Don’t let yourself get squeezed all the way dry – it’s vital to keep something back for yourself!

      When it’s time to move, go somewhere that makes you happy and don’t let anyone make you feel bad for it. Life’s too short.

  10. Just found out late last week that my Calgary physician has left the province. Gone to Ontario.

    My spouse had neurosurgery last year. One of the neurosurgeons told us at the review meeting that he was leaving the Province.

    What surprises us is not that they have left, but others we know have shared the same story about their physicians/health care professionals.

    The challenge is this is not something that can be remedied overnight or within 18 months with a change of Government. Alberta has a terrible reputation in the health care community.

    Why would someone in a high demand profession accept a job offer/position or establish a practice in Alberta given the Governments current, and past approach to heath care and professional healthcare workers? I certainly would not.

  11. I have said before that the UCP is like an addled monkey that can’t stop from touching the third rail of health care, despite repeated nasty shocks. Unfortunately, I don’t think they will ever learn partly because they are blinded by ideology. They actually believe they need to destroy the system to rebuild it the way they want it. Hopefully voters will judge the UCP on their performance, in particular their record on health care has been dismal. If they don’t the UCP will continue to add to the problems the health care system faces.

    Despite some efforts by the UCP to stop it, exasperated health care professionals have been and still are voting with their feet. Some of the older ones are retiring early, some a bit younger cutting back their work loads, and of course a lot of new graduates are avoiding Alberta like the plague, because of what has happened in the last few years. I expect a lot of health care workers elsewhere in Canada have anywhere but Alberta on their list of potential places to relocate to. All these things contribute to more and more staffing shortages in Alberta. Sure, the province may still attract some few foreign professionals, who may not be aware of how dysfunctional the system here is, but after they come and realize, they will probably react like those already here.

    While the Alberta government, under the pressure of COVID, backtracked on some of their bad ideas, they never fully gave them up or admitted what a mess they caused. They have not really made an effort to repair or rebuild the trust that has been lost. Now it seems after taking a bit of a pause or break they are back to trying to destroy health care.

  12. I will never forget the nurses bawling their eyes out in my office when Klein destroyed their careers. Nor will I forget the doctor with tears streaming down his face who told me he had six patients who desperately needed to be in a hospital and he couldn’t even get one in because of what Klein had done. Klein’s father Phil said to me “Al what in the hell is the matter with that son of mine. While he gives away billions in oil royalties he is forcing us to try to live without a proper health care system . This could cost some people their lives.” Phil was right it did cost some their lives and the lawsuits prove it. One was almost my father after he had donated around $30,000. to the Alberta Conservative Party and our family had spent countless hours volunteering for them. I helped nine doctors and at least two dozen nurses relocate out of this province and not one wanted to go. We were told that we lost 14,783 health care workers thanks to Klein and doctors told us that if Ed Stelmach hadn’t spent millions on buying up foreign doctors and nurses Albertans would not have had a health care system at all. It would have been shut down. Doctors have stated that the system had never completely recovered from what Klein did when along comes another Liberal turned Reformer in Jason Kenney deliberately destroying it again, yet we still have ignorant Albertans supporting these damn Reformer party fools and don’t care what they are doing to us.

  13. using the private sector to provide public health care is not a good business plan. It costs more money. The private sector has to make money. They usually have shareholders and they want their investment to pay. Public health care, it doesn’t need to make a profit.
    when B.C.’s premier, “el gordo” privitized all the hospital cleaners back in the 2000s, we didn’t have a clean hospital in the province. If it wasn’t in “the contract” it didn’t get done unless some where, some one O.K.ed it. The hospital was then charged more. Cleaning staff didn’t come on to the floors until “start time”. You know who cleaned bathrooms in hospitals, 5 year university degree nurses. The current B.C. government has brought cleaners back into the public health care system and are once again “government employees”.

    Private health care works well for those who can afford it, the rest, not so much.

    A lack of decent health care in Alberta will become a bigger problem when people decide to not move there due to a lack of decent health care.

    The UCP is going to continue to work towards private health care in Alberta because that is what they do. They believe private money making organizations are the way to go. Its not going to change and neither will the number of people who die because of it.

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