Alberta eyes more operating rooms, contracts with private clinics for surgeries

CALGARY — Alberta’s health minister says he aims to make the province a national leader on meeting surgery wait-time targets by building more operating rooms and using more private clinics.

Tyler Shandro says the goal is to have 80,000 more surgeries done over the next 3 1/2 years.

“We’re going to have the best access to scheduled surgeries in Canada,” Shandro said Tuesday at the Southern Alberta Eye Centre in Calgary.

“This is an ambitious plan that is going to take a lot of work because the reality is we’re very far behind.

“We weren’t meeting the targets in 2014, before the last provincial election, and we’ve slipped straight back for the last four years.”

Shandro said the government wants to meet medically recommended deadlines for all scheduled surgeries, which for nearly 80 per cent of them are four months or less.

Some 300,000 surgeries are performed in Alberta each year.

Shandro said there are 70,000 Albertans in line for a procedure, and 20,000 of them have been waiting for more than four months.

Shandro said the plan involves boosting work done by Alberta’s 42 private clinics, which handle knee and hip replacements, cataract removals and routine procedures and day surgeries.

The bill is paid by the provincial government under medicare.

The clinics, mostly in Edmonton and Calgary, handle about 15 per cent of surgeries.

The clinics are underutilized and have room to grow, said Shandro, who added surgeries there can be done cheaper than in hospitals because of lower overhead and labour costs.

“We need them (the clinics) to be at full capacity.”

Another benefit is that clinic surgeries will free up hospital beds and space in operating rooms, which the province is also looking to expand.

Geoff Williams, a surgeon at the eye centre, said redirecting patients to clinics makes sense. He said he has seen patients with serious issues such as heart attacks be sent away from hospitals because beds were full, some with people awaiting routine operations like fixing detached retinas.

“Many of our patients are healthy and therefore they don’t require full hospital admission,” said Williams.

NDP health critic David Shepherd said Alberta should focus on funding public health care.

He said the more money goes to private clinics, the more resources and staff will leave public services and, ultimately, the field will tip toward those who can pay for faster or better service.

“It’s important we address the key issue of wait times, but we’ve yet to see evidence … that this (private clinic model) in fact improves those wait times compared to investing those resources in our public system.”

Shandro said funding for the wait-time initiative is still being developed and will take its cue from a third-party review on health-care delivery that is to be delivered to the government before the end of the month.

Alberta is spending $20.6 billion this year on health. It is a one per cent increase from the previous budget and represents 43 per cent of total government operational spending.

The funding increase does not match population growth or inflation, and Alberta Health Services has warned nurses and hospital support workers that there could be hundreds of layoffs.

The province has also passed legislation allowing it to tie billing privileges for new doctors to rural areas where service is lacking.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2019.

— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton

The Canadian Press

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