Central Alberta leaders are watching nervously to see how $315 million worth of provincial health-care cuts will affect staff, long-term care centres and patient care.
Alberta Health Services is calling on some nurses and other professionals to take early retirement, and ordered long-term facilities and assisted-living providers to cut costs by three per cent. The province aims to reduce health-care costs overall by three per cent.
Decisions are expected in November and December, with cuts to occur in January as part of a plan to balance the books over the next several years. Cuts of $650 million are already underway this year.
Critics warned the cuts could translate into thousands of jobs lost, hurting patient care.
And one union leader predicted early retirement offers for some health administrative staff in Red Deer could come as early as today.
Ken Collier, president of the Alberta Friends of Medicare board, wondered why the province is calling on nurses to take voluntary early retirement when only recently, it recognized a shortage of 1,600 nurses.
“The Alberta government really wants to privatize a lot of services that are now public,” said Collier from Red Deer on Thursday.
He anticipates the cuts will make way for more private long-term care, since he said a number of negotiations are underway between the province and private companies.
All Albertans should be concerned about where patients will go when the government closes public facilities, Collier said.
Long-term care facilities were promised a six per cent boost in funding earlier this year, so this week’s announcement will cut into that.
Mary Anne Jablonski, Red Deer North MLA and minister for seniors and community supports, said the province is trying to handle the cuts with “as little impact as possible on seniors.”
“Private health care has not been discussed in our government,” Jablonski added.
“At this point in time, I am reassuring people that’s not part of the plan.”
Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett gave no indication as to how many jobs the superboard wanted to cut.
Even with the cutbacks, Duckett said the province’s goal to reduce surgical and emergency wait times can be achieved.
The province aims to have a balanced budget and reduced waiting times in three to four years.
United Nurses of Alberta President Heather Smith said those who take early retirement will pale in comparison with the thousands who will lose their jobs.
She believes most of the three per cent overall cuts will be attained through staff reductions.
And that means patient care will suffer, Smith said.
“We don’t have enough staff to meet the needs of (Albertans) and yet we are going to slash and burn yet again. Here come the 1990s all over again,” said Smith, referring to the significant cuts made by former Premier Ralph Klein.
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents auxiliary nursing care employees along with others who work in profit and non-profit continuing-care centres, is also voicing concern.
“How much more can they cut from the long-term care?” said AUPE president Doug Knight of Red Deer.
Knight figures mostly administrative positions will be targeted for early retirement, since a number of them may not be needed after the province eliminated nine health regions and formed one large health superboard.
“We don’t know how that’s going to affect those at the old David Thompson Health Region, who are working at the old brick building in Michener (in Red Deer),” said Knight. “We have heard this (early retirement) package is going out to those people (today) so that will probably tell us where the targets are.”