POLITICS

NDP, Friends of Medicare question Alberta Health Services medical lab proposal

10/16/2013 03:09 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
EDMONTON - The Alberta NDP and a public health lobby group are raising questions about a $3-billion government proposal to change medical lab services in the province.

Alberta Health Services documents released by the New Democrats on Wednesday say current services operated by Dynalife are not financially sustainable. The government agency wants to get competitive bids from other private corporations before the Dynalife contract expires in March 2015.

The proposed plan focuses on the Edmonton area and would include a new state-of-the-art lab facility, perhaps under a public-private partnership, in a 15-year contract.

"Alberta is faced with growing demand, new and often more expensive tests and testing platforms, growth in costs, space constraints, an aging workforce and recruitment challenges — all of which impact quality of service delivery into the future," reads a document given to AHS staff last month.

"We are acting now to address these issues by proposing a new laboratory services delivery model."

It's being suggested changes would be made first in the Edmonton area and then considered for other regions.

The documents say Alberta Health Services hopes to issue a request for proposals from private corporations on the contract later this month.

New Democrat David Eggen said hiring one company to be a single provider of medical lab services would weaken public health care.

Eggen said some of the companies that could submit bids include Laboratory Corporation of America and Quest Diagnostics, which he says have had legal problems in the United States.

"These private health-care companies all have records that call to question the Progressive Conservatives' ability to manage our health care," he said.

"This government needs to come out and let us know exactly what is going on. They are not getting a P3 to build a drainage ditch, right? It is public health care."

An Alberta Health Services question-and-answer document provided to staff suggests that the nearly 1,000 lab employees in the Edmonton region would keep their jobs with whatever private company won the contract.

The pledge covers managers, unionized workers as well as medical and scientific personnel.

The agency says it would seek to ensure that the new employer offered comparable salaries and benefits and would honour union contracts.

Alberta Health Services declined an interview request Wednesday, but issued a statement in an email.

"No decisions have been made about lab services in Edmonton. We have discussed proposed changes with staff, pathologists, physicians and other stakeholders to gather their input and insight. That engagement process is still underway," reads the email.

"The proposed model focuses on patient needs, safety and quality. We have been upfront about our proposed plans with staff, stakeholders and the public. Material has been shared and has been posted on the Alberta Health Services website since mid-September."

The lobby group Friends of Medicare also expressed concern about the medical lab services proposal.

Executive director Sandra Azocar said awarding such a contract would raise ethical problems because laws protect private companies from disclosing private business information.

She said the change could also include moving acute medical tests from hospitals to the private facility.

"In-hospital laboratories routinely do tests that have life-and-death implications for Albertans," Azocar said. "Removal of acute-care testing from hospitals into private, for-profit labs would be irresponsible and short-sighted."

Alberta Health Services said under the proposed changes urgent patient tests would continue to be done in hospitals, but non-urgent tests would be done in the new private lab.

The private lab would also take on genetic and specialized testing, such as advanced diagnostic tests required for cancer patients, which may require a higher level of expertise and technical equipment.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees called on the government to halt the privatization plan.

AUPE vice-president Karen Weiers said the province tried to do the same thing almost 20 years ago, but then backed away from its decision 11 years later.

"Before Alberta Health Services forges ahead with another costly experiment that puts service quality at risk, we need full disclosure of what went wrong last time," she said.