New health minister halts hospital bed closures

EDMONTON — Alberta’s beleaguered Conservative government is halting some unpopular bed closures at hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary — the second major reversal this week.

EDMONTON — Alberta’s beleaguered Conservative government is halting some unpopular bed closures at hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary — the second major reversal this week.

The province’s health superboard had announced in September that about 300 acute-care beds would be closed to help reduce a $1-billion deficit.

But Premier Ed Stelmach shuffled his cabinet recently in the face of nose-diving polls and now his new health minister, Gene Zwozdesky, is living up to his reputation as a fixer who moves quickly.

Zwozdesky ordered the superboard Wednesday not to proceed with the bed closures.

Alberta Health Services has been able “to find some efficiencies” that will allow the beds to remain open, said the minister. “So they do have a little bit of wriggle room.”

Earlier this week, plans to transfer dozens of patients from Alberta’s largest mental hospital were scaled back after a public backlash. About 150 of the 246 planned bed closures at Alberta Hospital Edmonton were cancelled. The issue had become a political liability for the Tories after prosecutors, psychiatrists and nurses raised concerns about public safety if some mental patients were forced to live on the streets.

An equally loud public outcry was heard in September when the acute-care bed closures were announced.

“We have to settle this down a little bit and let people know we do care about what their opinions are and that we do have a plan and we do have a vision and all of that is being worked on,” said Zwozdesky. “Clearly the public of Alberta wants more engagement and they’re going to get it.”

Zwozdesky was repeatedly asked if the two reversals in his first week on the job indicated a loss of faith in board president Stephen Duckett. His answer suggested that the minister believes mistakes were made that he needed to fix.

“I’m supporting the current system that we have until I know differently,” said Zwozdesky. “I don’t know if they were bad decisions.

“Let’s just say that some of the decisions that I’ve seen perhaps could have been done differently, could have been reviewed more thoroughly in a few cases.”

Board chairman Ken Hughes downplayed the minister’s decision to halt the bed closures. He said this was always the board’s goal if the money could be found.

“There’s no harm in reflecting on how we’re doing so far and can we make some modest course corrections in terms of where we’re going,” Hughes said in an interview.

“If we come to the conclusion that we don’t need to close any of those beds … we’d all be happy with that.”

David Eggen of Friends of Medicare says it was a mistake for the health board to pay down its deficit by closing beds in crowded hospitals.

“Mr. Zwozdesky needs to get hold of this beast that’s been unleashed,” said Eggen.

NDP Leader Brian Mason says the Tory government is backing down because they’re “terrified of losing the next election if they don’t stop messing with the health-care system.”

“What we’ve been saying all along is, ‘It’s the health care system, stupid.’

“Unless the government realizes that Albertans insist on good quality, publicly delivered and publicly fund health care, they’re not going to be around for long.”

Liberal health critic Kevin Taft says it’s clear that the new health minister is taking a hands-on approach.

“I’m sure they’re trying to rescue their poll numbers from the bottom of the barrel,” said Taft. “This province needs more hospital beds, it’s as simple as that.”

Zwozdesky’s announcement stole the thunder from a news conference being held at almost the same time to release the final report by the Minister’s Advisory Committee on Health.

The 16-member government-appointed panel has called for the creation of a patient charter to guide Albertans on what to expect from the health system. It has also recommended that an Alberta health act be created that would “reflect a publicly funded health system that is accessible to all, regardless of ability to pay.”

Review panel co-chair Deborah Prowse says many Albertans feel left out when it comes to making important decisions about health care.

“We heard again and again that people feel they aren’t being adequately consulted about their health services or directions taken by the health system.”

The panel spent a year gathering data mainly through an Internet survey which brought in nearly 1,800 responses.

Zwozdesky was presented with a copy of the report Wednesday morning, but said several hours later that he’d need more time before responding.