The $44-million solution

The decision by Alberta Health Services to take $44 million out of their budget and put it into the budget for advanced education is unprecedented. Doubtless, in the horse trading that takes place when the budget is sliced, dollars that could go in one department sometimes ends up in another.

The decision by Alberta Health Services to take $44 million out of their budget and put it into the budget for advanced education is unprecedented. Doubtless, in the horse trading that takes place when the budget is sliced, dollars that could go in one department sometimes ends up in another.

But for allocated dollars in health care to be re-allocated to education in the health-care professions? It’s like one department saying another department can’t do its job. These things just don’t happen.

That’s not the only thing strange about this occurrence. I

The numbers just showed up in the province’s quarterly budget update last week. Because the AHS superboard had to estimate its budget before their actual allocation showed up in the provincial budget, they ended up with nearly a quarter billion extra dollars.

They decided to boost spending on “emergent pressures” by $50 million, which was a good idea.

And they also decided to put $44 million into training doctors and nurses, to alleviate staff shortages that are only going to get worse with time.

This is indeed strange, because just last year, the AHS position was that there was no staff shortage. In 2009, CEO Stephen Duckett was saying any nurse he didn’t hire now was just one less nurse he’d have to lay off later.

Nothing really has changed since then, except AHS is getting more used to telling the truth to Albertans.

A chill on funding for education has resulted in Premier Ed Stelmach having to eat crow on a promise he made to graduate more nurses and doctors in Alberta by 2012. By next year, Stelmach said, Alberta would graduate 295 doctors (up from 227), 2,000 RNs (from 1,375), and 1,000 LPNs (from 559).

This year? Suffice to say we’re not quite on track. We have 249 doctors, 1,519 RNs and 587 LPNs.

And this year, the schools cut student spaces because of underfunding.

The AHS decision to give them $44 million got even stranger when AHS spokesman John Tuckwell was careful to give Stelmach some of the credit when talking with reporters.

Actually, $44 million isn’t much. It will have to be allocated over the years required to open new student spaces next year and train them to completion. That’s a decade for a doctor, so don’t look for results any time soon in the emergency waiting room.

Stelmach need get no credit for this. They knew a staff crunch was coming and denied it for years — long enough for hundreds of Alberta health grads to leave the province because of poor job prospects here.

Right now, about a third of Canada’s nurses are less than 10 years away from retirement.

By 2018, Alberta expects there to be more than 161,000 job openings in nursing, with only 116,000 people to fill them, according to a federal Working in Canada report.

Nationally, 24 per cent of nurses work part time, says the report. In Alberta, because of funding restrictions, it’s about half, according to the United Nurses of Alberta, so we will need more bodies to fill those empty spots.

Unless we start actually hiring people, which Duckett has been loathe to do so far. By last March, the province had only added maybe 300 nursing positions. (No hospital beds, mind you, just more nurses to look after the ones we have.)

This is a perfect storm of bad decisions about to hit us, just as a demographic boom of rapidly rising retirements and aging population requiring more health care begins.

So, what’s the $44 million solution going to be next year?

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.