05/29/2013 03:59 EDT | Updated 07/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Alberta's Surgery Wait Times Could Be Longer Over Summer: Official

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Nurse tending patient in intensive care

EDMONTON - Patients face bed closures and possibly longer waits for surgery as the province works to make the system leaner and more efficient, Alberta Health Services announced Wednesday.

CEO Dr. Chris Eagle told a news conference that many surgical suites are closed for six weeks over the summer, but that may soon be increased to 10 weeks.

"Obviously there's a trade-off there. If you have more closures, you're potentially having a longer wait list, so we're going to have to watch that very carefully," said Eagle.

The surgery change is one of a number of options Alberta Health Services, or AHS, announced in its new 2013-16 business plan.

One goal is to find $220 million in savings in the upcoming year to be redirected into critical areas such as community and emergency care.

The plan is to increase community-based funding by almost 10 per cent to $1.2 billion, which would allow for more continuing care, palliative and hospice beds and other services.

Emergency and outpatient services would receive 6.4 per cent more, for a total of $1.5 billion, to reduce pressure on and overcrowding in emergency wards.

Eagle said the health system is still not meeting its emergency room wait time targets. Population growth is proving a challenge.

"It's a seven per cent increase over the last year in our 13 largest hospitals," said Eagle. "I cannot provide the capacity. It's not reasonable to provide the capacity to keep up with that.

"We have to look at what's driving those people to come to those emergency departments. Why are they not receiving care earlier in the community?"

Eagle could not give hard numbers on reduced summer surgeries.

He said summer schedules vary from region to region and speciality to speciality. Heart operations and transplants still get priority treatment during the summer.

Among other changes:

— Some acute-care beds occupied by patients waiting to be placed in continuing care may be closed as more continuing care beds open.

— Administrative costs to be cut by $35 million over the next three years.

— There will be improved shift scheduling and a push to make more part-time staff full time. Eagle said about 60 per cent of nurses, for example, are part time.

— There will be a push to increase revenue streams, although Eagle could not say what those might be.

He also disavowed AHS background briefing notes given to reporters announcing that "some underused programs and services that don't fall under AHS priority areas may be scaled back or eliminated."

When pressed by reporters for details, Eagle said there may be standardization and streamlining, but no chopping.

"We are not cutting back the basket of services that we're giving to Albertans," he said.

"So you're saying (the briefing note) is wrong," a reporter asked.

"Yeah. That's what I'm doing," he replied.

However AHS officials later confirmed in an email that such cutting is already underway but not in a way that harms patient care.

Such cuts, they said, include four surgical beds and 30 beds in the temporary transition unit at Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital.

Also, as of this week, 26 clerical and nursing jobs are being cut in seniors, palliative care and home care programs in Calgary.

Next month, the 30-bed temporary transition unit (Patient Care Unit 47) at Rockyview General Hospital in Calgary will close.

Opposition leaders condemned the report.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith noted last year's AHS business plan included targets and performance measures for medical procedures, but this year's plan does not.

"This is an incomplete plan," said Smith.

"Because they haven't been able to reach their targets, they've decided to get rid of them, or hide them."

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said the plan still relies too heavily on private companies to solve problems in long-term care.

“Given the severe shortage of affordable long-term care spaces in Alberta and the lower quality of (private) care compared to non-profit facilities, it is clear that this is a failed strategy," said Sherman.

The Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents health-care professionals, labelled the announcement a "betrayal" of Albertans.

“We have been warning Albertans for months that the kinds of cuts that were being imposed on health spending as a result of the budget would lead to cuts in front-line care,” said HSAA president Elisabeth Ballermann.

NDP Leader Brian Mason said the hard numbers are few and far between in the plan in a deliberate attempt to hide further cuts.

Mason said there are just 13 budget lines in the document, meaning each line accounts for roughly $1 billion in spending.

"My grocery list is more detailed than the financial statements of the provincial health-care authority that spends almost $13 billion a year," said Mason.

AHS and Alberta's Health Department are far and away the biggest spenders in the government.

AHS, which provides front-line care and reports ultimately to Health Minister Fred Horne, is forecast to spend $13.4 billion this year, about $37 million a day.

That's an increase of 4.9 per cent over last year.

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