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Alberta Opposition urges audit of failed provincial lab testing privatization plan

EDMONTON — Alberta’s Opposition NDP is asking the auditor general to investigate the province’s failed attempt to privatize community lab testing.
Alberta’s Opposition NDP is asking the auditor general to investigate the full costs and decisions surrounding the province’s failed attempt to privatize the community lab testing system. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith shares the government's vision for the Alberta economy at a luncheon hosted by the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce in Edmonton, Thursday, July 20, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON — Alberta’s Opposition NDP is asking the auditor general to investigate the province’s failed attempt to privatize community lab testing.

David Shepherd, the NDP's health critic, says an independent analysis is needed, and that the United Conservative government can’t be trusted to transparently report what went wrong.

“In her time as leader of the Opposition, (now-Premier) Danielle Smith never would have accepted the government investigating itself on such a significant failure of policy and practice,” Shepherd told reporters Monday.

“And I do not trust this premier or this health minister to provide an accurate synopsis of the actual costs.”

Last week, Health Minister Adriana LaGrange pulled the plug on the handover of community lab testing to private provider Dynalife after months of complaints of long wait times and service bottlenecks in Calgary and the southern region.

LaGrange said the province has signed a memorandum of understanding with Dynalife to transfer its staff, equipment and property to the province by the end of the year.

LaGrange has declined to say how much Alberta will pay Dynalife, saying those details are still being hashed out.

Shepherd said the secrecy around the cost shows the United Conservative government is hiding something from Albertans or has bought something without knowing the cost.

Smith addressed the Dynalife decision on her provincewide radio call-in show Saturday, reminding callers it was made before she succeeded Jason Kenney as premier last October. She added that when problems persisted, she had to act.

“I didn't make the decision. I was watching it along with everyone else. I was hopeful that it would work. I had every reason to believe it would work because (Dynalife) had done a good job up in northern Alberta,” Smith told the show.

Smith said she, too, wants to know what went wrong. She said the fact Dynalife was the only bidder for the provincewide testing contract should have been a red flag.

She indicated privatization of the community lab testing system is not off the table.

“I would look at (buying Dynalife) as a step to stabilize the system,” said Smith.

“We want to make sure patients know that they're going to get the diagnosis and the treatment that they need. 

“And then we'll look forward about our contracting and do it better when we start looking at ways to involve the private sector in the future.”

In a Monday statement, Health spokeswoman Charlotte Taillon echoed those comments.

“Moving forward, we will be addressing contracting and procurement policies and procedures to better serve Albertans,” said Taillon.  

“The details of this agreement are still being finalized. We will continue to keep Albertans informed and will share further details when they are made available.”

The office of Alberta auditor general Doug Wylie said in a statement they had not yet received the letter from the NDP but will review it when they do.

Shepherd said Smith is missing the lesson of Dynalife by not ruling out privatization.

“It’s mind boggling,” said Shepherd.

“We had good delivery before the period the government pursued this (privatization) path.”

Dynalife has run lab testing in Edmonton and northern Alberta for more than two decades. It expanded the service to the rest of the province late last year under contract to the province on the promise of an expected $18 million to $36 million in annual savings.

Under the deal, Dynalife operations will be taken over by Alberta Precision Laboratories, which is part of Alberta Health Services, the province's health-care provider.

APL normally handles lab tests in hospitals and urgent care centres and in remote locations where there is no community lab testing available.

Two weeks ago, LaGrange announced APL would expand working hours and take on more appointments from Dynalife to relieve the crush of backed-up appointments and test results.

LaGrange said there will be no job losses or impact on patients during the transition.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 21, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press