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Alberta's Health Minister says temporary closures not so bad

Minister says vast majority of healthcare services are OK, despite continuing bed, ward and doctor cuts in the Lakeland region of Northern Alberta.

LAKELAND - Alberta’s Minister of Health, Jason Copping spoke to Lakeland This Week's newsroom on June 3, offering some explanations and a little hope for the on-going obstacles facing hospitals and healthcare in the Lakeland.

In recent months, bed closures, surgery cancellations, doctor shortages and supply reductions have hampered the rural healthcare system. During an interview with Lakeland This Week and other Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association members recently, Copping said he understood the concerns of residents. He said the issues have many sides, including the need to better recruit and maintain foreign professionals. He also said things were getting better. 

“There is short, medium and long-term plans in terms of leveraging immigration. AHS (Alberta Health Services) is sponsoring a number of doctors in rural areas to try and get them there, plus we are also having conversations about other things that we can use from a compensation standpoint. We are seeing an impact,” Copping said, referring to provincial funding in the 2022 budget that will see $600 million added annually to the system. 

“It’s going to take some time… the $1.8 billion over the next three years - $600 million a year - is about building capacity in our system so that we can retain people particularly in rural areas and we continue for recruitment.” 

Although the issues in the region and in other rural communities are unfortunate, the Minister said the situation regarding acute care beds in rural areas are still able to function quite well. In May, three and a half per cent of total beds in rural areas were closed as the issue continues to be addressed, said Copping. 

“As of mid-May for example, 95 hospital beds outside of Calgary and Edmonton zones were temporarily closed down due to staffing issues. That’s about three and a half  per cent of the total beds outside Edmonton and Calgary... So even though it's an issue we need to address, to put it in to context, over 96 per cent of the services are being provided.” 

In the week following his assurances, the minister’s department issued a news release saying that due to a global shortage of a certain medical dye, tens of thousands of diagnostic imaging tests for Alberta patients - including hundreds across the Lakeland - were being cancelled.

Local disruptions persist

In St. Paul, 10 acute care beds remain temporarily closed since June 7, 2021. An anticipated end date has not been set at July 3, 2022. Also in St. Paul, there is a "temporary disruption of obstetrical services" due to "temporary staff shortage due to vacation, vacancies, illness," according to the Alberta Heath Services map that shows temporary bed/space reductions. The end date is now set for July 4.

In Lac La Biche, eight acute care beds are temporarily closed, with an end date set for June 16. And a "temporary lack of anesthesia physician coverage" means there is a disruption in C-sections and obstetrical services. The start date of the service disruption was May 20, 2022, and end date is yet to be determined.

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