Backbenchers, Opposition push to address EMS shortage

By Catherine Griwkowsky November 29, 2021

Advocates and MLAs are sounding the alarm over an ambulance crisis in the province, but the Alberta Ombudsman says it is prohibited from investigating health authorities like Alberta Health Services.

In the legislature on Thursday, backbenchers used members’ statements to bring forward examples of how a lack of available ambulances and shuttered health centres threatened access to constituents’ care. Meanwhile, NDP MLAs used question period to press for answers.

Livingstone—Macleod UCP MLA Roger Reid said rural Albertans are living with the fear of being in a car crash, having a heart attack or a workplace accident with no ambulance available.

He read a letter from a High River constituent whose parents live blocks from an ambulance bay, but an emergency vehicle had to be sent from Nanton due to a shortage when her father had difficulty breathing.

“Communities have been tracing and posting when there are no ambulances available to respond in their communities,” Reid said. “One instance, in particular, was very disturbing. On August 31, a Nanton ambulance drove 114 kilometres to Strathmore to provide service and coverage. That’s over an hour away.”

Camrose UCP MLA Jackie Lovely told a story of a constituent who went to the Hardisty Health Centre, only to find emergency doors closed. The constituent laid on a wooden bench, waiting for an ambulance, which had to come from Killam. Eventually, a STARS air ambulance took the constituent to the Royal Alexandra hospital in Edmonton.

“The lack of available ambulances is a huge issue, especially when they are scooped up by cities for long-distance transportation,” Lovely said. “We can reduce the severity of incidents like these and improve the care for everyone by increasing the number of ambulances in rural areas to reduce response times.”

During an exchange between Health Minister Jason Copping and NDP MLA Shannon Phillips, the minister committed to short, medium and long-term strategies to address EMS service access.

Copping said there was a 30 per cent increase in emergency calls starting in the summer, but data from October shows call volume is now on the decline.

“That pressure is due to several factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid overdoses, and people returning to regular levels of activity,” Copping said. “The system is under stress, but let me be clear. If you call 911, you will get a response.”

Copping said AHS spent an extra $8.3 million in August to address the issue. That is on top of 200 paramedics hired over the past two years, Copping said.

In response, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta said that staffing increase was due in part to a temporary change to the status of part-time crews already working full-time, and 100 of those positions are based on a “vague” promise not expected to be fulfilled until next year.

That $8.3 million for the temporary change, announced by AHS in late August, involved transitioning 70 casual positions to full-time staff and extending contracts of 30 full-time staff that were added in 2019.

“There are 250 unfilled paramedic shifts just this week,” HSAA said on Twitter. “Albertans need action faster. Lives depend on it.”

Alberta Ombudsman Marianne Ryan said a legislative change would be required to investigate AHS’ decisions.

Ombudsman barred within legislation from investigating AHS

In an unusual move, Alberta Ombudsman Marianne Ryan issued a public statement about a complaint received from the cities of Red Deer, Calgary, Lethbridge and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo over AHS’ controversial consolidation of ambulance emergency dispatch.

On Friday, Ryan said her office could not investigate the complaint because the Ombudsman Act applies to more than 600 government agencies, boards and commissions, but not health authorities. A legislative change would be required to investigate AHS’ decisions.

“My office thoroughly analyzed the complaint and confirmed that the decision to consolidate ambulance dispatch services was indeed made by AHS,” Ryan said. “While many government-related bodies fall under my jurisdiction, AHS is not one of them.”

Ryan explains she does not typically comment on complaints, especially those not being investigated, but opted to do so since the complaint has been publicly reported.

AUMA, RMA pass resolutions calling for action from the province

The lack of availability of ambulances was a hot topic at the recent annual conventions of both Alberta Municipalities (formerly Alberta Urban Municipalities Association), which represents mid-to-large municipalities, and the Rural Municipalities of Alberta.

The Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) worked with Alberta Municipalities on a resolution to push for conversations with the province.

Fourteen municipalities were hit by rolling red alerts — when no ambulances are available for dispatch — earlier this month, according to the HSAA. Medicine Hat, Olds and Linden were down an ambulance due to a lack of paramedics, the union said on November 19.

“A decade with no investment in EMS and the massive amount of people waiting for care due to delayed procedures and diagnosis means that what could have been preventative care is becoming a health emergency, and overwhelming our incredibly stretched ambulance services,” said HSAA president Mike Parker. “The only solution that will bring immediate change is to invest in more paramedics and fill the over 1,000 vacancies for health-care professionals across the province.”