Alberta EMS report recommends steps toward privatization, critics say

Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping released reports on Monday looking into EMS capacity and the central dispatch system. The province estimates the number of 911 calls has increased by 30 per cent since last spring.  (Audrey Neveu/Radio Canada  - image credit)
Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping released reports on Monday looking into EMS capacity and the central dispatch system. The province estimates the number of 911 calls has increased by 30 per cent since last spring. (Audrey Neveu/Radio Canada - image credit)

The Alberta government is looking to free up EMS crews for emergencies by contracting out non-emergency patient transfers between facilities to private third-party companies.

The measure is one of 53 recommendations in the Alberta EMS Provincial Advisory Committee's final report, which was released Monday by Health Minister Jason Copping.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) intends to post requests for proposals soon.

But critics say the province is privatizing part of the EMS system and ignoring suggestions from the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), the union that represents 3,500 paramedics and 357 emergency communications officers.

Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), said he is pleased the government is finally acknowledging there are problems with EMS but privatizing inter-facility transfer doesn't help resolve capacity issues.

"The plan to privatize transfers will drain the number of paramedics available to respond to emergency calls because there's only one pool of professionals and added competition won't make more available," he said.

Chris Gallaway, executive director of public health-care advocacy group Friends of Medicare, shared Parker's concerns. He said the report doesn't address how to increase the number of EMS staff or keep current personnel.

"Today's announcement was about privatization, giving out more contracts with our public dollars for profit," Galloway said. "We don't think that's how our public dollar should be used."

The government estimates non-emergency transfers are responsible for 44,000 EMS calls each year.

Recommendations accepted

Highwood MLA RJ Sigurdson and Grande Prairie MLA Tracy Allard chaired the EMS advisory committee, which started its work in January 2022. Copping said the Alberta government has accepted all 53 recommendations in the report, which was completed last October.

The report recommends moving non-urgent patients who arrived at an emergency room via ambulance to the waiting room, freeing EMS crews to respond to other emergencies. EMS staff currently wait with their patients until they can be seen by medical staff.

Another recommendation is for the province to set up a pilot project for transition rooms staffed with medical personnel where patients waiting for inter-facility transfers could wait. The report says AHS has such a room at the Edmonton International Airport, where air ambulance patients wait for transfers via ground ambulance.

Other recommendations look at improving work life for existing EMS staff. That includes giving them scheduled breaks and the ability to finish their shifts on time.

The province is also advised to improve access to mental health supports for staff and to provide new staff with resiliency training.

Surge in EMS demand

Alberta plans to add 20 new ambulances to Edmonton and Calgary during peak hours this spring. The province estimates the number of 911 calls has increased by 30 per cent since last spring.

"There was no slack in the system before and there's just no way to respond to 30 per cent more calls without real strain on the system," Copping said.

HSAA has asked the government to offer full-time jobs to paramedics who currently work as casuals or on contract. Copping and acting AHS president Mauro Chies told a news conference Monday that they are still looking at the idea.

David Shepherd, the NDP Opposition critic for health, chided the government for not acting on the union's proposals.

"They have been looking at that for more than a year," Shepherd said. "The fact that the solutions that are called for by paramedics themselves are not included in this report is a serious failure."

Parker thinks the government doesn't want to hire casual workers because AHS would have to pay them benefits and sick time, which would cost the system more.

"It makes it really easy to just slide them into a privatized system in a for-profit industry," he said.

The government also released the PricewaterhouseCoopers' review of centralized EMS dispatch, which was loudly opposed by mayors in Wood Buffalo, Red Deer, Calgary and Lethbridge.

The report concludes that increased demand for EMS is creating delays, not the central dispatch itself.