Provincial budget day was anti-climatic after Wednesday’s blockbuster $1.8-billion hospital expansion announcement.
While local doctors and other heath-care providers were thrilled with the commitment, there was little additional detail on Thursday as to how the money would be spent beyond the initial government commitment to invest $193 million over the next three years.
“Really, what I think what we want to know is how are we going to get from here to there,” said Red Deer orthopedic surgeon Dr. Keith Wolstenholme, who accompanied internal medicine specialist Dr. Kym Jim to Edmonton to watch the budget announcement.
“I think there is, or has to be, some recognition that where we are now is not tenable or feasible.”
It is hoped the $193 million, plus a previously announced $100 million, will be used to cover the gaps until the hospital project, including 200 more beds, is completed in 2030-31.
There were positive signs for health care in the budget. The province has boosted the health budget to $22 billion — up 2.4 per cent or $515 million from the previous fiscal year.
About $133 million has been included to increase surgical capacity at Alberta Health Services facilities and $750 million has been allocated for COVID-19 contingency to address pandemic-related backlogs and related costs. Another $100 million has been set aside to increase health-care capacity, including adding intensive care beds.
Continuing care will get $3.2 billion, a 6.3 per cent boost over 2021-22 and which includes $20 million to improve access to palliative care.
About $90 million will be spent each year on rural physician recruitment and retention, as well as an additional $22.5 million over recruiting and retaining nurses and supporting nurses who work in rural and remote areas.
Wolstenholme said Red Deer typically has not been included in rural recruitment and retention funding, but it should be, as should all communities outside Edmonton and Calgary.
“Honestly, that would be my recommendation we really need to recognize that Red Deer, and really everywhere outside Edmonton and Calgary, is really struggling right now to recruit and retain resources.”
Dr. Jim shares Wolstenholme’s view that steps need to be taken immediately to address health-care service issues ahead of the expansion.
“We need to expand the operations we have today in the existing space that we have. It will take time for these (major expansion) changes to happen but we need funds today to expand the current program.”
Jim also notes that if the promised $1.8 billion is spread evenly over eight years about $675 million would have to be invested in the next three years. The budget did not show that kind of spending.
“There are some things that don’t entirely add up and SHECA (Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta) will be there to ensure that this project gets completed.”