Braid: Health care just kept getting worse after Smith's big promises last year

If nothing else, it’s clear that health care reality has left pre-election promises far behind

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The UCP’s pre-election health care promises and claims lie in ruins.

Provincial health care is generally in worse shape than it was on Feb. 27, 2023, when Premier Danielle Smith said “the system’s not in crisis, it’s not going to collapse.”

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Smith and her sole boss of the system, Dr. John Cowell, claimed key areas were improving. Cowell topped the promise parade when he said that within a year, all surgical wait times would be within clinically acceptable standards.

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Smith agreed. Yes, all that would happen.

“We’re increasing the capacity across all entry points into the system, whether it’s ambulance, whether it’s telehealth, whether it’s going to an emergency room, whether it’s surgical wait time,” she said.

“Those things are tangible, because we’re seeing the numbers go down.”

They had statistics to prove their point. But key areas regressed throughout 2023. Today’s numbers are often worse or stagnant, not better.

The big claims came three months before the May 29 election. The UCP and the premier were eager to show the voters signs of hope. Essentially, they wanted health care off the ballot.

They did make some improvements, notably in EMS ambulance waits.

But this New Year’s Eve in Calgary, 39 shifts were unstaffed, taking 20 ambulances off the road.

Last weekend, staff were hanging tarps in the Red Deer hospital to create more waiting space. Many people are waiting longer than ever to get knee and hip replacement surgery.

Cowell’s promise about surgery wait times always seemed extravagant. Ten months on, it looks ridiculous.

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A month after the promise was made, the provincial average wait time for a new knee was 99.6 weeks. The most recent figures, from last October, show a wait of 101.8 weeks.

The typical Calgary time was a tick higher, at 101.9 weeks — just short of two years.

These times measure the gap between when a surgeon decides a patient needs surgery and the date of the operation. It does not include typically long waits to see a surgeon in the first place.

The wait time for hip replacement in Calgary has been virtually constant, showing 75.6 weeks just after the promise, and 75.1 weeks last October.

Provincewide figures for hips are similar; 78 weeks when Smith and Cowell made their claims, 77.3 weeks in the most recent report.

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Premier Danielle Smith listens as Dr. John Cowell, official administrator with AHS answers questions during a press conference on Wednesday, December 21, 2022.
Premier Danielle Smith listens as Dr. John Cowell, official administrator with AHS answers questions during a press conference on Dec. 21, 2022. Gavin Young/Postmedia

“We made small gains that looked a little bit positive, but it has all regressed and we’re now even more challenged with staffing,” says Dr. Paul Parks, president of the Alberta Medical Association.

Parks says that propping up one part of the system inevitably puts more pressures on another part.

“We put all our energies into trying to address a problem to pretty up those numbers.

“The rest of the system collapses behind it, and it’s just a matter of time before the original numbers regress back to where we were a year ago.”

Regarding EMS, he said: “I don’t want to be critical because what was done was important. We got ambulances back out there.”

But the pressure to “dump” patients compounded ER waits, and then spilled back to ambulance service once again.

“It’s totally predictable, where we’re at right now,” Parks said. “It’s as bad as it was a year ago and it’s likely going to get worse.”

Adriana LaGrange, Paul Parks and Danielle Smith
Health Minister Adriana LaGrange, Dr. Paul Parks and Premier Danielle Smith at a press conference on Dec. 21, 2023. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

Also slow in coming is a promise to ferry non-urgent patients in private vehicles with minimal medical equipment.

Parks has advocated this for years. “It’s an excellent idea. I’ve been saying that for a long time (and) there are probably some areas where it’s working.

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“But as far as I’m aware, these non-ambulance transports — or NATs, as we call them — have not been implemented in any meaningful way.”

Smith has upended the system since the pre-election promises were made. Alberta Health Services has its fourth CEO in less than two years. AHS itself will soon be only one of four health agencies.

Parks doesn’t comment on that. But he calls for something bigger — a national crisis meeting with all premiers and the prime minister to address key problems.

“There needs to be action at the highest level to actually acknowledge how bad it’s gotten,” he says.

“Doing something concerted is essential — a national forum and agreement with all the premiers across the country to address this, because it’s just imploding.”

If nothing else, it’s clear that health-care reality has left pre-election promises far behind.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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