The misadventure over the fate of eight hospital helipads in Alberta should be a crash course in public relations and consultation for Alberta Health Services executives.
It should also now be clear to Albertans that they must demand a role in any renovation of health services. Public vigilance in examining the process, and voicing needs and concerns, is essential.
And it should raise serious questions about the political leadership that has created the Alberta Health Services structure but apparently wants to stay at arm’s length from it.
Alberta Health Services, the body that now controls all health service delivery in Alberta, ordered helipads closed at the eight hospitals as of July 1. The decision was made public just days before it took effect, without any public consultation.
And, it turns out, the decision was made on faulty information. Health Services officials blamed Transport Canada for the closures, saying that the federal regulatory body had deemed the helipads unfit.
But Transport Canada denied any role: “(The helipads) were not closed by Transport Canada,” said Andrea Rudniski, a federal spokesperson. “Alberta Health Services’ recent decision to close and then re-open . . . its heliports was not the result of any Transport Canada requirement and it wasn’t the result of any Transport Canada new regulations.”
This week, after helipad service was restored, Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett blamed the confusion on mistaken information. At the same time, health services board chairman Ken Hughes apologized for the decision and the firestorm it created.
Here’s hoping neither of them is so embarrassed that they didn’t notice how quickly communities stood in defence of basic services — and how quickly health professionals and elected officials (but neither Premier Ed Stelmach nor Health Minister Ron Liepert) joined the fray.
“My concerns stem from how Alberta Health Services is making decisions that directly impact myself, my coworkers, my community and my patients without any openness or forewarning,” said longtime Sundre physician Vesta Michelle Warren.
Rocky Mountain House MLA Ty Lund was more blunt about the decision: “It doesn’t make any sense.”
The decision left hospitals in Sundre, Castor, Consort, Didsbury, Barrhead, Westlock and Wainwright, and Edmonton’s downtown Royal Alexandra Hospital, without direct access for helicopters.
Helicopters delivering or picking up patients could get no closer than the nearest airport, putting the ill and injured at risk and raising questions about the long-term viability of seven rural hospitals, many of which are in isolated areas.
That the decision to close the helipads was based in misinformation, and was rescinded, should be but slight consolation.
The graver issue is how the decision was made: without consultation, without examination of the implications, and without providing the affected communities with the time to prepare.
Even in the aftermath, no health services officials took the time to attend a public meeting in Sundre to explain the situation.
Alberta Health Services intends to establish a regular consultation model with several regional committees to ensure better communication and understanding of the issues. The 12 advisory councils replace 59 community health councils that operated under the former health regions. Each council will each have 10 to 15 members representing different regions.
Better late than never. But in the meantime, Albertans need to be reassured of a few basic things:
• That the premier and his cabinet will intercede when bureaucratic decisions go awry (and that the local MLA even knows about changes that could seriously affect his or her riding).
• That the evolution of health delivery in Alberta will include full public consultation and disclosure.
• That those who make critical decisions are accountable for them.
Anything less will mean the process is bankrupt, and will raise serious questions about the future management of health care in Alberta.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.