Recovery Alberta transition a surprise for unions

By Catherine Griwkowsky April 4, 2024
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Dan Williams speaks at a lecture reading Alberta Recovery Model and in front of two signs one with the word recovery visible. Premier Danielle Smith stands beside and behind Williams right side.

Premier Danielle Smith and Mental Health and Addictions Minister Dan Williams announced the formation of a new Recovery Alberta agency. (Government of Alberta)

Assurances from Mental Health and Addictions Minister Dan Williams that the transition from Alberta Health Services to a new Recovery Alberta for front-line workers comes as cold comfort to the unions representing those workers.

Ahead of Wednesday’s Recovery Capital conference, the government announced it is taking over mental health and addiction services from the arm’s length health board, which came as a surprise to unions who thought they would be consulted before, not after, the announcement.

Asked by reporters about a lack of prior notice for health-care workers, Williams said he has been engaging with front-line health-care workers throughout the transition.

“The front-line AHS staff that work [in] mental health and addiction don’t do it for the glory,” Williams said. “They have a deep, deep passion for the care and well-being of Albertans. I recognize that and that’s why I see it as a partnership with them.”

United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) president Heather Smith said answers about the new Recovery Alberta entity need to be forthcoming as bargaining resumes with Alberta Health Services.

Smith said while UNA was given a frequently asked questions document that promised business as usual, the impact of the transition to the new agency is confusing and potentially chaotic.

“Every AHS nursing employee will be impacted directly or indirectly by this decision to hive off mental health and addiction services into a separate organization, and it appears there was a serious lack of in-depth planning,” Smith said.

Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) president Mike Parker and vice-president Leanne Alfaro said the union was not informed of the changes, despite previous promises from the government.

“When the plans to restructure health care were first announced, this government and AHS assured us that your union would be consulted and informed throughout the process,” the joint statement reads. “After the press conference concluded, we met with the new CEO of Recovery Alberta along with the other health-care unions. While some assurances were given, we were left with many unanswered questions.”

Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) vice-president Sandra Azocar questioned how a new organization could be in place within three months while the legislation to enact it has not yet been tabled.

“Transferring thousands of workers out of the Ministry of Health and into this new organization under a new ministry leaves many unanswered questions for AUPE members,” Azocar said.

Government defends engagement, transition plan

Recovery Alberta CEO Kerry Bales said prior to the announcement that “there wasn’t any direct engagement from a staffing perspective, but since that time, there’s been an iterative process.”

Premier Danielle Smith said the government signalled it was moving forward with the health-care restructuring.

“It wasn’t a question of whether we were doing this or not — we made it clear, we were doing it,” Smith said.

Speaking at the Recovery Capital conference Wednesday, Smith touted her government’s efforts to take addiction treatment from an afterthought to the forefront of policy conversations.

The premier said the government has built two of 11 planned recovery communities, implemented the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program and funded 10,000 additional treatment spaces.

“The Alberta Recovery Model is leading the country, and we will continue to do so as we expand the system over the coming years,” she told the crowd.

On Tuesday, a drug policy alternatives event was held, organized by Friends of Medicare, Moms Stop the Harm and other harm reduction advocates.

Each+Every lead Euan Thomson told 630CHED host Shaye Ganam the government refuses to look at harm reduction measures — such as supervised consumption sites and safe supply — as part of a policy spectrum to address the drug poisoning crisis.

“The data are very, very clear that focusing on abstinence-based treatment is not an approach to reduce deaths,” Thomson said. “In this context of this crisis, we cannot use that as the sole approach for managing deaths or even trying to reduce deaths.”