We all agreed last year at the onset of the pandemic that when the temporary hospitals go up, that’s when the trouble really starts.
Little did we know that the most alarming warning of impending disaster in 2021 wouldn’t be the emergence of white tarps and tents, but the collapse of services in brick-and-mortar structures we already had in place to treat patients.
Alberta Health Services [AHS] has been forced to close almost as many beds as it has opened for ICU-overflow, despite never ending demand for treatment of all conditions [not just COVID-19]. Rural communities have been hit hardest by these closures, and in some small towns and cities, where healthcare services are already limited, stripping beds has closed entire units, including:
- In-patient rehab in Ponoka;
- Long-term care at the Galahad Care Centre;
- Emergency Care in Hardisty;
- Obstetrics in Sundre;
- And, non-emergent obstetrical services in Rocky Mountain House.
These stats forecast a terrifying storm that could cut the power in other departments, or worse — knock over entire hospitals. But these recent closures also speak to a long history of underfunding and short-staffing in AHS, where “cost-saving” schemes have done nothing except lower quality of care in Alberta.
To provide quality care to Albertans, our members and their coworkers need adequate staff-to-patient ratios. One LPN or HCA can only do so much, but in a top-heavy bureaucracy where short-staffing is permanent policy, they’re expected to do everything at once. It’s unsustainable and Albertans deserve better.
Let’s not forget that for every clinical team, there’s also a team of support staff, preparing food for patients, washing linens, cleaning and disinfecting the buildings, ensuring infrastructure and equipment are kept operating, making sure a mountain of information is kept up to date, and providing protective services. These staff are just as essential to keeping our health-care system running, but they’re often first on the chopping block when the suits come looking for ways to squeeze more “efficiencies” out of workers.
Rural Albertans disproportionately pay the price for this penny-pinching with massive job loss. Research shows that when an employer cuts jobs in a community, we indirectly lose more because laid off workers are no longer spending money locally. Here in Alberta, AHS alone plans to cut 11,000 support jobs.
In some remote and rural communities, this could erase entire services for local residents. When Saskatchewan privatized their hospital laundry facilities in 2013, they replaced five rural laundry processing facilities with a central facility in Regina because it was more profitable. All the jobs moved to the city, and there was nothing left for the rural communities that once benefited from stable jobs in public care. In actuality, rural Saskatchewan paid double for any cost savings that the plan proposed.
We’ve been warning about weakening services for a long time, but it’s taken a crisis like COVID-19 to force the conversation across the province. Alberta can no longer afford to ignore the structural crack caused by years of cuts. Of course, workers could never afford to ignore these attacks.
For as long as this province’s health-care managers have been cutting back, increasing workloads, and privatizing, AUPE members have been putting forward a different vision—a province that invests in expanding public health care. A province where both workers and patients have it better.
To make this vision a reality, AHS must hire more health-care workers. It needs more staff per patient, and it needs more support workers per clinical care providers. It must improve wages and working conditions, so that we can attract more talent. And it must listen to the voices of front-line health-care workers when they tell it how to fix the system.
These are the only ways we can save our current hospitals and health centres from collapse and ensure future ones run smoothly — by supporting the people that provide the care because it’s clear that our health-care facilities are nothing but empty buildings without the humans that work in them.
AUPE Executive Committee,
President Guy Smith,
Executive Secretary Treasurer Jason Heistad,