The future of health care will be one of the most hotly debated topics in this month’s provincial election and nowhere more so than Red Deer-South. After a long wait, the community is getting a redevelopment the Red Deer Regional Hospital, which the province says will have an estimated cost of $1.8 billion.
This story is part of an editorial partnership between the Calgary Journal and MacEwan University journalism.
The hospital expansion will begin with a $193 million investment over the next three years and will include 200 new in-patient beds, increasing capacity to 570 beds.
The expansion also provides for three new operating rooms, increasing surgical capacity to 14 operating rooms.
The Red Deer hospital is the busiest outside of Edmonton or Calgary, with half of its patients coming from communities outside of Red Deer, according to the Government of Alberta.
Over 450,000 residents of Central Alberta rely on the services of this hospital.
Now, with the Alberta election coming up at the end of May, the question is whether it will be the UCP or the NDP who will make the hospital redevelopment a reality.
Political scientist Duane Bratt, of Mount Royal University, says Albertans will be most concerned about issues regarding affordability and health care during this election.
“As much as the UCP is going to blame the NDP, they haven’t been in office in four years, so it’s tough for them to get criticized for not doing the hospital,” he said.
“There have been times when the two parties have cooperated … but both the Edmonton South hospital and the Red Deer hospital have been a political football between the two.”
Bratt believes the NDP must win at least one seat in Red Deer to take back power this spring.
The key candidates in the Red Deer-South riding for this year’s election are incumbent MLA Jason Stephan (UCP) and first-time candidate Michelle Baer (NDP). Political watcher Dave Cournoyer also lists Ashley MacDonald as a candidate for the Green Party.
In a recent town hall, Stephan said he wanted to ensure the hospital expansion stays on track by creating a timeline with specific milestones to achieve and share with the public, RD News Now reported.
“I would like regular reporting. Regular accountability to make sure that government and AHS are being vigilant,” he told the crowd.
Stephan also said he has been pushing for fairness within health care in Red Deer, as the primary decision-makers are located in Calgary and Edmonton, and they cannot ignore the needs of people in the smaller centres.
The NDP promises increased accountability as well.
“There won’t be questions and long periods of time where the doctors and health-care workers or even the public are wondering what’s going on,” Baer said in an interview. “There will be regular updates so that people know exactly what’s going on and where our energy is focused.
“It’s actually the NDP’s promise that we will provide the accountability that the UCP have failed to provide over the last four years.”
Baer points out that former premier Jason Kenney had a major funding announcement in 2020, “and we are still in a long period of inaction and silence where most people don’t know what’s going on. We haven’t seen any progress.”
Stephan, however, believes there are also operational issues holding back the hospital.
“The things we have to advocate for and (The Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta) has to advocate for, they have to do that because AHS is not doing what they have the stewardship to do.”
Stephan believes AHS has the ability to provide health care and personnel resources, and “AHS has not done their job very well.”
This brings up the concern of the relationship between the Alberta government and the province’s healthcare workers.
Stephan says Albertans are wealth producers and already pay public sector workers well as a result.
“Because we produce and generate great wealth, we have opportunities to make sure that our public services are better funded … and we do fund, and we pay and remunerate our public service workers in all areas relatively high to other parts of the country.”
But Baer says the UCP has created a hostile culture with health-care workers, particularly throughout the pandemic.
She says repairing the relationship between the government and health-care workers starts with respect, which comes from increased transparency, accountability, and communication—all things health-care workers will receive from an NDP government.
Red Deer has a long history of voting conservative, with the UCP receiving 60.3 per cent of the votes in the 2019 election. The NDP held the riding in 2015 with conservative votes split between the PC and Wildrose.
However, issues around healthcare may put the NDP back in power in Red Deer and Alberta.