Leaked letter suggests Alberta may downgrade rural hospitals

A leaked document suggests the province is considering closing or downgrading health facilities in central Alberta.

Alberta Friends of Medicare is warning that a plan exists to downgrade 10 Central Alberta hospitals by eliminating their ability to provide emergency care.

A leaked newsletter from David Thompson Regional Medical Staff Organization summarizes the plan — which has not been approved by Alberta Health Services board — that would see Rimbey, Ponoka, Lacombe, Innisfail, Castor, Coronation, Consort, Sundre, Three Hills and Hanna hospitals converted to urgent care centres that would only provide care for those in non-life threatening situations.

Health Centres in Trochu and Castor would be closed and funding to long-term care facilities in Bentley, Trochu and Breton would end.

The newsletter mentions a capital master plan that forecasts the physical building needs of the DTHR to 2035.

The plan includes new urgent care centres for east Red Deer and Sylvan Lake.

Ken Collier of Red Deer, president of the Alberta Friends of Medicare board, said the plan may have been developed by the former David Thompson Health Region, but apparently “it’s still a live document.”

“The date on it (newsletter) is April 16, 2009. That’s pretty recent,” said Collier on Thursday.

Residents in those communities are going to be “shocked and upset” because the facilities were built in part by donations from the communities and there’s been no opportunity for public input, he said.

“You don’t get public discussion about it. You don’t get hearings. You have a bunch of officials sitting behind closed doors deciding to do this,” Collier said.

Local Tory MLAs insist the outdated plan was neither approved by Alberta Health Services or the former David Thompson Health Region.

“The Friends of Medicare want to make political points by putting fear into Central Alberta residents,” said Lacombe-Stettler MLA Ray Prins.

“They’re talking about Rimbey, Ponoka and Lacombe. Those are my three towns with three large hospitals.

“Rimbey has a brand-new hospital. They spent over $20 million there. Lacombe is running at over 100 per cent capacity. And Ponoka is a very busy hospital.”

Changes would not be done without community consultation, he said.

“If anything like this was to be happen, if it were to happen, the first to be consulted are community leaders, mayors, councillors and the MLA,” said Prins, who said he had not heard of the DTHR plan prior to Thursday.

But the province has talked about making changes to rural health care.

According to Alberta Health and Wellness’s Vision 2020 plan, released in December, the government is looking at “enhancing services in short stay, non-hospital facilities and other clinic-type arrangements as an alternative to hospitalization” in relation to rural health care.

Red Deer North MLA Mary Anne Jablonski said the province is still reviewing its health care options.

“Nothing has been decided. Providing health care in rural Alberta is obviously a priority for this government. We’ll just see in which direction Alberta Health Services decides to go.”

At the legislature, Health Minister Ron Liepert declined to say whether the plan has been approved by the government or to confirm whether such changes are in the works.

New Democrat Leader Brian Mason said the proposed rural hospital changes cited in the letter, and word earlier this month that elective surgeries are to be reduced at hospitals throughout the province, are reasons for concern. Mason said the government owes it to the public to be more open about its health-care plans.

“It looks to me that they do have plans to substantially cut back our health-care system, especially in rural Alberta,” he said. “They haven’t told the public. We depend on leaks now from doctors and health-care professionals to find out what the government is doing because they keep their plans hidden.”

—with files from The Canadian Press