The provincial government said Tuesday it is cutting 11,000 jobs in the health-care sector, with a vision of saving $600 million per year.
Some of the cost savings will come from outsourcing work such as laundry and lab services, as well as housekeeping and food services.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro says the plan for contracting out services was set out in 2019. He also said that 100 management positions will be cut at Alberta Health Services.
“The pandemic has changed everything. As a result, AHS has been directed to proceed carefully, putting patient care above all else,” he said. “This approach will allow us to strike the right balance between supporting the COVID-19 response and Alberta’s challenging fiscal situation.”
Dr. Kieth Wolstenholme, an orthopedic surgeon at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, said that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday’s announcement is worrisome and does not send the right message to frontline health-care workers.
“The first thing that comes to mind when I read (the decision) is it’s disrespectful,” he said. “These are different times, during a pandemic. People really are putting their lives at risk when they go to work. A person who cleans a hospital room, that person is exposed just as much as a nurse or a physician, and I just think it’s really disrespectful, especially in our current times.”
In the operating room, where Wolstenholme said nurses and cleaning staff are already stretched thin, Tuesday’s announcement could potentially create longer wait times for surgeries, said the doctor.
Shandro said no jobs will be lost for nurses or other frontline clinical staff, but some positions may be eliminated through attrition.
“I work primarily in the (operating room) and we are always struggling to fill nursing positions,” Wolstenholme said.
“So if we’re not going to replace when a young nurse who goes off on maternity leave, or a senior nurse retires, if we’re not going to replace those positions, we’re going to lose OR time and the ability to look after patients.”
In an Ernst & Young report on restructuring AHS, which the government began implementing Tuesday, 16,000 layoffs to health-care workers were suggested.
Wolstenholme said while outsourcing positions might save the government money in the long run, the workers are integral to the operation of the hospital, whether it’s food services or cleaning.
“Housekeeping staff that clean the rooms between cases, those people are rock stars,” he said.
“When we finish a case, especially a trauma case, it’s a disaster in there and the housekeepers get it all cleaned up. They’re efficient at their job and I just think this is really inviting unpredictable change and it’s not going to work how they want it to.”
According to the provincial government, nearly 68 per cent of health-care laundry is already outsourced to the private sector and 70 per cent of lab services are outsourced as well.
Those numbers did not sit well with the Alberta Federation of Labour.
“Lab services have been incredibly important in the fight against COVID-19 in Alberta,” said federation president Gil McGowan.
“It makes absolutely no sense to outsource 2,000 jobs from lab services during a global pandemic and claim it will have no impact on Albertan’s health care.”