Red Deer Regional hospital continues to struggle with too few beds and operating rooms, according to health care proponents who want to expand services. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).

Being on AHS list is no guarantee Red Deer hospital expansion will be funded by province

Supporters of hospital project are waiting for firm commitment from Alberta Health

There’s no guarantee a Red Deer hospital expansion will be funded in 2019, despite being deemed a priority by Alberta Health Services, say proponents.

“It’s definitely positive to have the project back on the list” for top-ranked AHS capital projects, said Dr. Keith Wolstenholme, an orthopedic surgeon at Red Deer Regional Hospital.

But he noted: “Alberta Health picks from (the AHS priority list) to decide which project will get funded… And we’ve been on that list before and been dropped from the list…”

Until there’s a solid funding commitment from Alberta Health, there can be no certainty the project will be approved in the next provincial budget, added Wolstenholme.

The surgeon is among many doctors and hospital staff who are hoping the expansion gets going next year. “We’re one small crisis away from being overwhelmed,” he said.

More children have been admitted to hospital lately with the flu, he said, putting additional strain on the emergency department, which always struggles to find free beds for new admissions.

“Emergency gets grid-locked” with patients it can’t admit, so there are fewer ER spots open for new patients, ratcheting up waits, said Wolstenholme.

Meanwhile, elective surgeries are being cancelled because the hospital is too full, frustrating patients and surgeons. He added, “We’re struggling all the time for access to beds…”

Red Deer City Coun. Vesna Higham is cautiously optimistic, now that the hospital expansion has been returned to AHS’s priority list, recalling it was number four in 2015, before inexplicably vanishing off the list for the past several years.

See: Hospital improvements on AHS priority list

With so many already identified gaps in local hospital service — including longer than acceptable delays for paramedics waiting for patient transfers — Alberta Health has to be paying attention, Higham said.

Fellow Coun. Ken Johnston noted there’s a provincial election in 2019, casting more uncertainty on whether the project will be in the next provincial budget.

An election must be held between March 1 and May 31, so some people question whether the New Democrats will pass a budget before ballots are cast, or leave it to whomever forms the next government.

Regardless, the health care needs of central Albertans must be met, said Johnston, who believes advocates must keep lobbying for the hospital expansion.

“We need to keep our foot to the gas pedal,” agreed Red Deer city Coun. Tanya Handley, who wants the facility to get a new cardiac catheterization laboratory, as well as more beds and operating rooms.

These kinds of needs were identified 10 years ago, said Coun. Michael Dawe, who adds the government should make up for a “lost decade” by approving funding in 2019 as well as providing a timeline for the expansion. Coun. Lawrence Lee feels there’s more momentum behind the project now.

“The whole community is behind it,” he said.

Wolstenholme has heard that several AHS needs-assessment studies on the hospital are now done. His group of local doctors has filed a freedom of information request to see the results, which have yet to be released.

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The Emergency Room at Red Deer hospital often has much longer patients waits than the provincial average. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).

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