03/11/2015 02:23 EDT | Updated 05/11/2015 05:59 EDT

Alberta to add beds, improve emergency care wards to ease bottlenecks

EDMONTON - Alberta paramedics will be allowed to do more for patients to help relieve a bottleneck leading to long waits in emergency care.

It's one of three initiatives announced Wednesday by Health Minister Stephen Mandel.

He says as of this summer, paramedics will provide more front-line care in clinics and regional hospitals by handling duties such as portable lab analysis.

The province also plans to open 311 new restorative care beds to help seniors transition from hospitals back to their homes.

There is also to be $50 million to increase capacity and improve care in emergency rooms in Edmonton and Calgary over the next two years.

Mandel says the government is working to protect front-line care, even though it is planning five per cent spending cuts across the board in the next budget.

Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare, said the announcement included no details on how the funding would be allocated between the five facilities or what specific renovations or expansions would take place, nor did it say if any additional staff would be hired with the expansions.

"It is also not clear why the brand new South Health Campus in Calgary requires renovation or expansion, or how the crumbling Misericordia Hospital will survive when it alone needs over $100 million in upgrades within the next few years," she said in a news release.

Azocar said the PC government opened medical transition beds in hospitals in 2010 to deal with the same issues of overcrowded ERs, but closed them in 2013.

"They have already closed 36 surgical beds this year at the Peter Lougheed Hospital, replacing them with the rapid transit beds announced last month.

"Today's beds appear to be very similar to the medical transition beds and the rapid transit beds but with a new name: restorative beds," she said.

The group that represents about 25,000 health-care professionals in Alberta, including EMS workers, called Mandel's announcement "more smoke and mirrors than real facts."

"I know Premier Jim Prentice doesn't like to talk about mirrors nowadays, but this announcement of restorative beds and changes to the role paramedics seems to promise much, but deliver little," says Elisabeth Ballermann, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta.

She added that the announcement leaves more questions than answers.

Ballermann said one question is whether the 311 restorative beds are in addition to the 464 new continuing-care spaces announced in October 2014.

She also wondered if the beds will be in public or private, for-profit facilities and if the funding will come from the Alberta Supportive Living Initiative new money or part of the $60 million announced in October.