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Alberta health minister says fundamental change needed as system is 'not working'

EDMONTON — Health Minister Adriana LaGrange says the Alberta government is fundamentally restructuring health care because the system "is not working.
Alberta Minister of Health Adriana LaGrange speaks to the media in Calgary on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. She says says the Alberta government is fundamentally restructuring health care because the system "is not working." THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON — Health Minister Adriana LaGrange says the Alberta government is fundamentally restructuring health care because the system "is not working."

“Any Albertan who has gone to a hospital or to a clinic and had to endure the long wait times and not had access and not have quality care knows that we need to do something differently,” LaGrange told the house during question period Monday.

“The average Albertan cannot get in to see a family physician when they need to.

“What’s happening right now is not working, so we are committed to improving the system.”

Premier Danielle Smith’s government has promised to introduce in the current fall sitting a plan to decentralize Alberta Health Services that will deliver more decision-making and accountability to regions.

LaGrange told the house she has met with stakeholders and other Albertans and is acting on their concerns.

“I'm excited about what we are bringing forward that will actually refocus the system (and) empower the workforce,” said LaGrange.

“They’re wanting change. We’re going to give it to them.”

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Smith’s government has proven it is not up to the challenge given it had to recently reverse a program to outsource more community lab testing to Dynalife, a decision that resulted in an explosion of long waits for testing in Calgary and southern Alberta.

“This UCP government has to be kept as far away as possible from our health-care system,” Notley told LaGrange.

“After this lab fiasco, this government must know they have zero credibility with Albertans."

Community lab-testing is now being restored to the government by the end of the year, and LaGrange said wait times are improving.

Notley noted the auditor general has agreed to investigate the Dynalife deal, and urged LaGrange to wait.

“Why won’t the minister agree to wait and see how much this mess costs Albertans before she goes off to try and create a new one?” said Notley.

Smith has long promised fundamental reform of Alberta Health Services, better known as AHS, which is tasked with carrying out health policy and delivering front-line care.

Smith has criticized AHS as too top-down and monolithic in its decision-making and said it failed to respond to rising hospitalization rates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, she fired the board of AHS and replaced it with a single administrator.

On Saturday, Smith told reporters in Calgary that the looming changes will see AHS focus on hospital and acute care with other priorities such as primary care and mental health hived off in a process expected to take 18 months to two years.

Smith called the process “disaggregating.”

“Alberta Health Services is going to continue operating our acute-care facilities, and we’re going to ask them to do a better and better job at it," said Smith.

“We’re going to ask them to make sure they’re optimizing the use of each facility, that they’ve got the right patients in the right place receiving the right treatment and that local decision-making is optimized, regional co-ordination is optimized and the central functions that make sense happen at the central level.

“Too many of those decisions happened at the provincewide level and it ended up creating a lot of frustration.”

Last week, the president of the Alberta Medical Association said physicians are watching carefully what the province will be proposing.

Dr. Paul Parks, also an emergency room doctor, said doctors need to be involved at every stage as even small policy changes can have profound effects in an integrated system like health care.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press