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A $320.6 million injection into Red Deer hospital project will not immediately resolve serious shortfalls, say doctors

Why was an Edmonton new hospital fast-tracked with more funding, they wonder.
Short-term solutions are needed to endemic problems at Red Deer hospital, say doctors, who fear these will not be addressed by the $320.6 million in funding over thee years going towards a hospital expansion that won’t be completed until 2031. (Advocate file photo)

Getting $320.6 million over three years for the Red Deer hospital re-development does not mean short-term changes will happen to alleviate pressures on the emergency room, surgeries and patient beds, say local doctors.

“We’re still calling for a bridging plan,” said Dr. Kym Jim, of the Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta (SHECA) on Wednesday.

While welcoming the substantial sum announced on Tuesday towards the hospital expansion that’s to be completed in eight years, Jim fears Alberta Health Services will be unable to use any of the annual $100.2 million between 2023-2026 to ease the space crunch that’s already seriously straining resources now.

The money for the Red Deer hospital, announced in the provincial budget, is part of a $1.8 billion expansion project that isn’t expected to start construction until about 2027-28 and wrap by 2030-31.

While welcoming the $320.6 million, Dr. Keith Wolstenholme, a local surgeon, hopes the substantial funds won’t just go into more planning and design, but rather into actual physical improvements. “We need to have some ability to increase capacity before 2031. It can’t wait eight more years…”

Ideally, Wolstenholme hopes a new hospital annex or transitional space could be created for additional patient beds, more ER capacity and one or two more operating rooms.

If the local hospital doesn’t get more beds until 2031, it will be 30 years since the last expansion.

Meanwhile, the local doctors noticed this week the provincial government appears to be fast-tracking a new hospital for south Edmonton by giving this project twice as much money than Red Deer hospital received in the budget.

The province is allocating $634 million until 2026 for continuing work on the south Edmonton hospital, with full construction costs previously estimated at $2 billion.

Jim and Wolstenholme agree that health care needs are high right across the province and they don’t begrudge the Edmonton project, but feel it’s “concerning” that this new hospital appears to be prioritized over the Red Deer hospital redevelopment. “How did that project get so far ahead of us?” asked Jim.

Local healthcare workers and SHECA have been lobbying for a cardiac catheterization lab for Red Deer hospital, as well as more patient beds, ER space and up to six more operation rooms for more than a decade .

Last year, former Alberta premier Jason Kenney promised the Red Deer hospital expansion would create the catheterization lab, as well as bring the patient bed count up to 540 from the current 370 by 2031-32. He also said three new operating rooms would be added, bringing the total to 14 — which left some local surgeons disappointed, saying this would not fill local surgical needs by 2031.

Finance Minister Travis Toews was asked in a media roundtable Wednesday about concerns by some Red Deer doctors that the Edmonton hospital project appeared to be moving faster than Red Deer’s.

Toews said the Edmonton south hospital project had been on the books already when the UCP took office in 2019. “It’s been a project that’s been on the capital plan for a longer period of time.

Red Deer received its substantial funding and approval in last year’s budget, he added.

“With all of these hospitals, there is so much much planning design engineering that’s required, it’s important to get that right. If governments rush into that process it will result in a poor build, in cost overruns, in change orders that add time and cost to the project, and it runs the risk of creating a facility that’s just not appropriate for the region.”

Toews said “material dollars” start to get spent on Red Deer’s hospital in 2024-25 “and there will be a consistent, significant spend every year thereafter.”

An Alberta Health spokesperson could not immediately be reached to explain how the Red Deer hospital funding announced on Tuesday will be used.

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