Alberta’s Opposition health critic is sounding the alarm on hospital bed closures during the summer which the provincial health delivery agency says is due to staffing shortages.
NDP legislature member David Shepherd said Monday he estimates about 12 communities have been affected and as many as 99 beds have been temporarily closed.
Alberta Health Services confirmed in an email late Monday that the number is between 112 and 117.
“There are a lot of people with pent up health-care issues and untreated conditions who are now showing up at our hospitals seeking care,” Shepherd said.
“And the same front-line health-care workers who gave so much during the pandemic are now being asked, with having had no time to rest and recover, to keep taking extra shifts, to work more overtime to meet that new demand.”
He added that some of the communities affected include Cold Lake, Lac la Biche, St. Paul, Edson and High Prairie.
AHS noted in its email that service changes are not unusual during the summer, and the closures amount to less than 1.5 per cent of the province’s acute-care beds. It said the pandemic has depleted the available pool of casual staff, and remaining staff are less inclined to pick up shifts because they’ve been working “extremely hard” during the pandemic.
“Temporary bed closures are only done as a last resort and we work to ensure patients continue to receive safe, high-quality care. Any Albertan who is in need of acute care will get care,” the statement read.
Earlier in the day, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the government was anticipating some staff shortages in the summer because of vacations.
“We did note that coming into July that we were going to have pressures from a human resources perspective … and (AHS) is going to make sure to continue to respond to that,” Shandro said.
He also said the bed closures are not related to contract talks in which the government has proposed a three-per-cent wage cut for nurses, among other rollbacks.
But Shepherd said Shandro was being disrespectful to health-care workers who have been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year.
“Despite the incredible courage and professionalism that these Albertans display, this (United Conservative) government turns and attacks them,” he said.
“UCP remains at war with Alberta doctors and now, incredibly, they want to cut the wages of Alberta nurses. It’s absolutely shameful.”
The province has also been in a bitter dispute with doctors for more than a year, after Shandro used a law passed by his government to unilaterally tear up a master agreement with the Alberta Medical Association and tried to make changes to how doctors are compensated for their services.
The 11,000 physicians represented by the medical association refused to ratify a tentative deal in March, citing distrust of the government as a key factor.
In Calgary on Monday, Premier Jason Kenney said staffing has always been a challenge in rural, remote hospitals.
“That’s not a new thing and it’s not just an Alberta thing,” Kenney said, adding that the government increased its budget by $19 billion for physician recruitment and retention in those areas.
“People go on summer holiday and we don’t have a locum pool that’s large enough and some of those hospitals are hard-stretched.”
But Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, said what is new is bed closures in busy Edmonton hospitals, such as the Cross Cancer Institute and the Royal Alexandra Hospital.
“I have never heard of it happening like this in terms of the number of sites and the rapid succession,” Smith said. “I don’t think this is a normal summer kind of event.”
Smith said 12 beds have been closed at the Cross Cancer Institute and six beds at the emergency department of the Royal Alexandra Hospital, one of the busiest in the province.
She said she has heard of some nurses working 12-hour shifts for 14 days in a row, when their contract stipulates they can only be scheduled to work those hours four days consecutively.
“What happened last week was a significant kick in the gut,” Smith said of the government’s request to roll back nurses’ wages.
She said the union has asked all its local representatives to record their service reductions and tally how many beds have been closed.
AHS said it has filled over 1,000 RN vacancies within the health-care system across Alberta in the last year and hopes to fill other vacancies by the end of August.
“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in staffing shortages in many jurisdictions across Canada,” the AHS email stated.
Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press