More deaths from the lack of a cardiac lab at Red Deer hospital and longer wait times for surgeries and emergency care are predicted in the aftermath of the 2021 provincial budget.
“It’s crushing,” said local surgeon Dr. Keith Wolstenholme, to receive only $6 million in the 2021 provincial budget for the badly needed hospital expansion.
He noted, last year, the project that’s been required for over a decade received another “drop-in-the-bucket” of $5 million from the provincial government.
Wolstenholme doesn’t know what it will take to get Alberta’s UCP leaders to take Red Deer-area health care needs seriously.
“All of the evidence has been displayed,” he said — from regular surgical cancellations to too-long waits at emergency, to hospital beds being chronically at over 100 per cent occupancy.
“This is obviously a political choice not to invest in health care in central Alberta,” Wolstenholme added — given the hundreds of millions of dollars the provincial government managed to find for health projects in Edmonton and Calgary.
In the 2021 provincial budget, Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre got $5 million for “renewal” and about $1 million more for design. A government three-year plan showed the local hospital expansion is slated to receive $19 million in 2022-23 and $35 million in 2023-24.
But while receiving $60 million, in total, over three years might sound like a lot, it will barely cover a cardiac catheterization lab for the hospital, which is needed to save some people from dying of heart attacks, said Wolstenholme.
He stressed there will be no money leftover to deal with Red Deer hospital’s bed or operating room shortage, or lack of space in emergency.
Regular surgical cancellations and lack of operating room space have already contributed to several “burned out” anesthetists deciding to leave Red Deer, said Wolstenhome, who believes their loss will only compound problems around booking surgeries.
Dr. Kym Jim, of the Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta, noted the $60 million promised for the hospital project by 2024 is a far cry from the $100 million that the province had pledged for the Red Deer hospital project last year.
Central Albertans are simply not getting what they need, or expect, when it comes to local health care services, he added.
Jim calculated that the provincial government is spending less than three per cent of its overall health care infrastructure budget on central Alberta facilities over the next three years — even though this region contains 10 per cent of the provincial population.
“This budget is putting central Alberta even further behind than where we already are,” said Jim.
In 2017, Red Deer hospital was found to be lacking 96 admitting beds, 18 emergency room beds, three operating rooms and funding for other other services, including a cardiac catheterization lab.
A July 2020 infrastructure report found Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre was not meeting AHS performance targets for emergency room wait times, length of stay, and had longer wait times for surgery. Medical beds were consistently “well over 100 per cent occupancy for a number of years.”
The hospital was also found to be dealing with sicker, higher-need patients as its role as a regional referral centre increases.
Red Deerians have been waiting for years to get significant government investment in a local hospital expansion, said Jim, and they will apparently have to continue waiting.
Premier Jason Kenney promised last year that work on expanding and refurbishing the hospital would begin in the fall of 2021.
Alberta Infrastructure spokesperson said the $5 million for hospital “renewal” in 2021 is being invested in the business case and preliminary design work.
The NDP’s infrastructure critic Thomas Dang said the UCP’s promises for central Alberta don’t come to fruition — first with Red Deer College becoming a university, and now with the hospital expansion.
Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre is the busiest health facility outside of Edmonton and Calgary and has operated beyond its design capacity for over a decade. Yet, “you see the priorities,” said Dang, who noticed all the health care spending going to Edmonton and Calgary.
“Even though Red Deer has two UCP MLAs, the city is clearly not a priority for this government,” he added.
A year ago, Kenney pledged $100 million as part of the first phase of improvements at the hospital but only rolled $5 million for hospital expansion planning and consultation into last year’s provincial budget.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro previously stated the cardiac catheterization lab will be part of the first phase of the hospital expansion, but the time-frame will be determined during the design process.