Smith says healthcare is her 'top priority' for provincial election

Budget 2023 focused on Danielle Smith's commitment to bolster healthcare in her return to politics. As a result, the UCP loosened its purse strings for the upcoming fiscal year to address areas of concern.

Smith says healthcare is her 'top priority' for provincial election
Facebook/ Danielle Smith
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On healthcare, Alberta's Health Minister Jason Copping pledged $243 million to boost primary healthcare over three years and a further $158 million in new spending to recruit frontline staff.

On May 10, the UCP said the province recruited a record 1,413 nurses through the Health Workforce Strategy that recognizes the qualifications of internationally trained professionals and promotes staff retention at Alberta hospitals.

The pilot assesses the skills and abilities of International Educated Nurses (IENs) and matches them with the three occupational nursing categories — registered nurse (RN), licensed practical nurse (LPN), and health care aide (HCA) — and allows them to start practicing immediately.

"We know there are thousands of health care professionals across the world, and a United Conservative government will continue to remove barriers for those who want to live and work in Alberta...and Albertans can have greater access to the health care they need," said Health Minister Jason Copping. 

Highwood UCP candidate RJ Sigurdson said the UCP inherited a "broken, bloated, and bureaucratic health system" failing Albertans. 

In response to this crisis, he said the province streamlined resources to the front lines, increased health spending by over $2 billion, and added 700 physicians and nearly 6,000 staff in AHS, including 1,800 registered nurses and 300 paramedics. 

"In 2022 alone, we added 254 physicians and 800 nursing staff," he said in a statement.

However, 190 Calgary ER doctors penned a letter Wednesday to Alberta Premier Danielle Smith concerning massive staff shortages across the province. They cited 42 residency vacancies that have left 650,000 Albertans without a family doctor.

"It's not perfect, but we are moving in the right direction, and we're going to continue to," Smith told Shaye Ganam on QR Radio. She noted that her party's measures are a 'work in progress.'

In Budget 2023, Smith pledged to increase mental health and addiction funding by three times that provided in 2019, to $275 million.

On April 14, the province committed $5 million over three years to provide recovery-oriented health support to people in police custody and to support harm-reduction and recovery outreach teams.

Over 1,600 Albertans died from unintentional drug overdoses last year — a 12% decline from 2021, when 1,852 people died from a fatal overdose — but both figures are far above pre-pandemic levels.

On April 19, the province announced $17 million in funding for ongoing mental health and addiction issues. "We are a government that believes that everybody dealing with the addiction crisis should have the opportunity for treatment and recovery," said Mental Health and Addictions Minister Nicholas Milliken.

In February, Addictions spokesperson Colin Aitchison told Rebel News that Alberta is working to establish more than 9,000 new publicly-funded addiction treatment spaces. They will also eliminate user fees for residential addiction treatment to ensure all residents can access these life-saving services.

If re-elected, the UCP will table controversial legislation that forces drug users into treatment if they pose a risk to themselves or others.

Smith also chatted with QR Radio about her administration's improvements since she took office, including their efforts to eliminate the COVID surgical backlog. At the start of 2023, over 6,000 Calgarians were on a waitlist for orthopedic surgery, with over half waiting longer than "clinically appropriate."

In January, Alberta contracted Canadian Surgery Solutions (CSS) to facilitate over 3,000 additional hip and knee replacements and joint procedures annually to bolster orthopedic procedures in Calgary by 21% compared with 2021/22.

For that fiscal year, Albertans waited 48.4 weeks on average for orthopedic surgery, including 16 weeks to meet with a specialist and 32.4 weeks to receive treatment after meeting the specialist. According to the Fraser Institute, the reasonable wait time for all surgeries in Alberta is 11.1 weeks.

Copping confirmed the contracted facilities and hospitals are managed by AHS and would not lead to frontline providers leaving the public healthcare system. 

With AHS restoring surgery volume to near 2018/19 levels in recent months, it aims to expand surgery capacity in the Central and South zones. 

After the fact, they issued two requests for proposed chartered surgical facilities, seeking 1,350 surgeries in the Central Zone and about 1,250 more procedures in the South Zone, ranging from hip and knee to general surgeries.

The UCP also says they have observed Emergency Medical Services (EMS) wait times fall "drastically" under their government, thanks to $136 million in new EMS funding to hire more staff and put more ambulances on the road. 

In January, the province unveiled a 10-point plan to allow paramedics and ambulances to get back on the road faster, with demand for ambulances reaching all-time highs.

"Since implementing our changes, EMS response times have improved throughout the province, including a 38% improvement in Calgary, a 25% improvement in Edmonton, and an average 33% improvement in smaller communities," said Sigurdson. 

"In just a short six months, these changes are resulting in a dramatic improvement for response times, red alerts, and at the same time improving the workplace environment for our hard-working EMS personnel," he continued. 

"Our plan to improve health care proves our commitment to Albertans and frontline workers."

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