10/14/2014 05:27 EDT | Updated 12/14/2014 05:59 EST

Overcrowded Alberta Hospitals To Get $180 Million To End Bottleneck

Martin Barraud via Getty Images

EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Jim Prentice says the province is embarking on a new plan to get 700 seniors out of overcrowded hospitals and into proper care facilities.

But the opposition says it's another government shell game intended to buy a campaigning premier and health minister a little popularity while failing to gain seniors the care they deserve.

Prentice announced the plan on Tuesday, saying the province will redirect existing resources over the next year to free up 464 continuing care spaces for seniors.

Another $60 million will be spent by Alberta Health Services to find long-term or continuing care beds for the rest of the 700.

Seniors Minister Jeff Johnson will then use another $120 million to get more care facilities built as quickly as possible.

"These challenges cannot wait," said Prentice, standing beside Health Minister Stephen Mandel at a news conference at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

Prentice said the goal is "looking to ensure that we allocate the right resources in the right places at the right points in time."

Due to bed shortages in long term and continuing care, about 700 seniors are currently taking up much more expensive acute care beds in hospitals.

That has created a domino effect of problems.

Hospitals are now working at overcapacity, with patients now being double bunked or being housed in hallways or patient lounges.

That has led to long waits for emergency care, and to cancelled surgeries.

Last week, Dr. Paul Parks, spokesman for emergency care for the Alberta Medical Association, stated that the situation is reaching crisis levels in emergency rooms, and that patients are dying needlessly after waiting too long for care.

Parks has said that even though he publicly flagged the bottleneck issue four years ago, the province has not solved the long-term care issue.

Alberta Health Service has closed 346 long-term care beds over the past two years.

Opposition critics said the key is long-term care beds versus continuing-care beds, noting the continuing-care beds are cheaper to operate and demand the patients pay for medications and other administrative expenses.

Long-term beds, however, provide 24-hour legislated care with more costs borne by the province.

"What we need specifically in this province are long-term care beds to move the most fragile people from hospital," said NDP critic David Eggen.

"This (announcement) is a campaign stunt more than anything substantive, and they (the PCs) should be ashamed of themselves."

Prentice and Mandel are currently running in two of four byelections to gain seats in the legislature. Voters go to the polls on Oct. 27.

Wildrose critic Kerry Towle agreed that it's a cynical numbers game.

"Over the last five years, the PCs promised to build 1,000 (care) beds per year, so it's actually quite a downgrade," said Towle.

She said continuing-care beds won't solve the problem, because when continuing care agencies can't care for the specialized needs of long-term care clients, they send them back to the hospital.

"All they're creating is the loop to continue (the bottleneck) again," said Towle.

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, who is also an emergency room doctor, said more money for continuing care is a recycled idea that failed after Parks first flagged the emergency room crisis in 2010.

“The premier and the health minister continue to throw good money after bad,” said Sherman in a news release.

"They’ve already tried this and it has failed."


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