Health care a hot topic on campaign trail

The Prentice government’s funding cut to health care, public-private partnerships in seniors care, and rural care are among the health issues concerning Central Albertans ahead of the May 5 election. Health-care spending was reduced by about $160 million, or 0.8 per cent, in 2015-16 provincial budget with a promise that frontline services won’t be impacted.

The Prentice government’s funding cut to health care, public-private partnerships in seniors care, and rural care are among the health issues concerning Central Albertans ahead of the May 5 election.

Health-care spending was reduced by about $160 million, or 0.8 per cent, in 2015-16 provincial budget with a promise that frontline services won’t be impacted.

“I don’t understand how they can take so much out of the health-care budget and not affect frontline people and the number of beds and the quality of care, for people particularly in hospitals and also in nursing homes where the quality of care has decreased because of the staffing numbers,” said Brenda Corney, chairperson of the Red Deer Chapter of Friends of Medicare.

The resurrection of health-care premiums by the Tories doesn’t sit well with Corney either, especially with the money collected going into general revenue.

“If they’re going to raise income tax, raise income tax. Don’t do it under the guise that they’re going to improve health care. If I have to pay extra for health care, I want it to go to health care, not some other project,” Corney said.

Shirley Thomas, vice-president of the Central Alberta Council on Aging, said the council has three major concerns that candidates must address: the reliance on private companies to build and manage continuing care facilities, the need for more affordable housing for seniors, and the future of the former long-term care facility Valley Park Manor in Red Deer, which was closed in 2010.

“Certainly we’ve been waiting a long time on the fate of Valley Park Manor. We know about the future of Red Deer Nursing Home. But the government still hasn’t made a statement on what’s going to happen to Valley Park Manor,” Thomas said.

Recently, the province announced that the former Red Deer Nursing Home site will be used to build a new lodge to replace the aging Piper Creek Lodge.

Shannon Spenceley, president of the College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta and a member of the provincial Rural Health Services Review committee that released its report in March, said government needs to figure out a way to deploy nurse practitioners who have a role to play in seniors facilities and community health care in rural Alberta.

“Rural communities want this. I was sitting at that table. I was at all 144 communities and I heard communities say we want an NP (nurse practitioner). We want to hire one. We don’t know how to hire one. We don’t know how to pay one because there’s no dedicated funding structure for NPs in Alberta,” Spenceley said.

Nurse practitioners provide comprehensive primary care, make medical diagnosis, and order lab tests. Ninety-five per cent of the fewer than 500 nurse practitioners in Alberta work in big acute care hospitals, she said.

“Where they could really be leveraged to maximum value, I think, are places like small rural communities that can’t recruit physicians or working in partnership with over-stretched rural physicians that can’t recruit any other docs to their area.”

Spenceley said they are also effective in long-term care facilities because they have the training and education to treat residents with multiple chronic conditions so residents don’t need to go to hospital when health-care issues arise.

“There are multiple provinces that have gone with that model. They have reduced return rates to hospital and hospitalization rates by up to 40 per cent for older folks,” Spenceley said.

Sylvan Lake and area will be holding whomever is elected to the current government’s promise to fund an urgent care centre in Sylvan Lake.

Sylvan Lake Mayor Sean McIntyre said as recently as Wednesday in Red Deer, Premier Jim Prentice reaffirmed his party’s commitment to the project.

“This is not an enhancement. It’s not a frivolous spending item. It’s health care for over 22,000 regional residents. It’s not something we’re going to give up on,” McIntyre said.

He said there are no concerns about funding to staff the facility because it hasn’t been determined yet what the facility is going to look like.

“We are celebrating our yes from the government,” McIntyre said.

Rocky Mountain House is waiting for approval to build a new hospital.

Rocky Mayor Fred Nash said it’s still a priority for the town and area and a hospital committee is still working with the province.

He said candidates will face the question at local election forums.

Besides the age of the existing hospital, there is also the problem of limited land for future expansion, he said.

“We’re never going to give up so it’s going to happen. But just when is the unknown,” Nash said.

Jennifer Vanderschaeghe, executive director with Central Alberta AIDS Network Society, said there are many important conversations to have leading up to the election, like health-care access for vulnerable and marginalized populations, mental health supports, affordable housing, poverty reduction, and addictions treatment.

“There’s nothing simple about a provincial election and the questions shouldn’t be simple. All of us really need to be aware of what each of the parties and candidates think on each issue.”

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