With election looming, Alberta opposition parties focus on health care stats

It seems most Albertans, through friends or relatives, have heard traumatic stories relating to health care. In some instances, long wait times are the culprit. In other cases, it’s a rushed patient discharge that leads to problems.

With an expected provincial election this spring, Albertans face a difficult choice. In whose hands should we put our health?

The Progressive Conservative Party, also referred to as the PCs, attempted to better health care by developing a five-year plan in 2010. The plan included eliminating health regions and appointing a superboard called Alberta Health Services, or AHS.

Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose Party, argues that the superboard was simply the latest change to a health care system that’s been declining since 2004.

“We’ve been seeing a decline in life expectancy, an increase in infant mortality, long waiting lists for surgeries, and long waiting lists in emergency rooms,” Smith says.

“The problem is that we have a broken system. The structure’s not working.”

Despite AHS being implemented to reverse the decline in health care, Smith says it has been a detrimental factor.

“The superboard has been a disaster. They’ve seen escalating costs and deteriorating services,” Smith says. “Hospital administrators have eight layers of managers they have to go through to make a decision.Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith talks at a function in Chestermere on Feb. 12, 2012. She has been outspoken about Alberta’s health care system and suggests that money isn’t getting through to the front lines.
Photo taken by: Drew Henn

“We’re pouring money into a funnel. If it can find its way down through all those layers of managers, whatever is leftover gets spent on the front lines.”

Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne argues that AHS has been successful. He says people forget that taking various health regions and mending them to fit under one superboard is a big transition.

“In continuing care, we’ve added over 1,000 beds per year,” Horne says. “We’re on track with our goal of adding 5,300 new continuing-care spaces over the next five years.

“Through centralizing administration, like payroll for example, we’ve been able to generate just under $700 million in savings.”

Horne also notes that having one system makes it easier to regulate certain practices province wide. As an example, he mentions the new approach that doctors are taking in assessing lung cancer treatment. He says it’s because the new approach was standardized under one board that it saved $15.4 million – funds that were then diverted to other health resources.

The recent AHS waiting time numbers tell a different story.

In its five-year plan, AHS set incremental goals to the year 2015. For March 2012, one of its goals is for at least 60 per cent of emergency room patients to be admitted into the hospital within eight hours.

Their numbers have fallen short.

The AHS website says that last week in Calgary, the Peter Lougheed Centre admitted only 34 per cent of patients within eight hours. The website also says that the Foothills Medical Centre and the Rockyview General Hospital did so at 41 per cent, and the Alberta Children’s Hospital was at 57 per cent.

Alberta Liberal Party leader Raj Sherman says this goal is not aggressive enough.

“They have such low measures and they’re not even meeting their low measures,” Sherman says.

Sherman notes that in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, admission times are a barometer that measures the quality of health care. Administrators are given strict goals and the consequences for not achieving them are harsh.

“In the United Kingdom, 95 per cent of patients need to be admitted from emergency within four hours,” Sherman says. “If the CEOs and administration fail, they’re fired. If they succeed, they’re given a bonus.”

However, Horne says that while wait times are important, there are other numbers that must be considered when reviewing the health care system.

He notes that looking at how well people fare after a hospital interaction, like surgery, should be considered when reviewing the health care system.

“If you look at things like cardiac disease or cardiovascular surgery, the numbers are pretty clear,” Horne says. “Alberta is the best place in Canada, if not North America in that area.”

Opposition parties in Alberta argue otherwise.

Smith says that returning decision-making back to hospital administrators will create a dynamic health care system.

“We think we need to flip the model,” Smith says. “Fund the front line first, and start squeezing those layers of administration that are diverting resources.”

Sherman argues the same. He says AHS needs to be decentralized to local areas.

“Everything in the Foothills Hospital should fall under the person running the Foothills Hospital,” Sherman says. “This is the problem with the structure of AHS. You have people in different cities that are in charge of ten different things in the same hospital in Calgary.

“It’s just silly.

“The buck can’t stop 300 kilometres away.”

ahenn@cjournal.ca