Alberta could lose more than 750 front-line nurses under a "massive downsizing" at Alberta Health Services (AHS), says the United Nurses of Alberta.
The nurses' union said it learned of the planned cuts Friday morning after the lead negotiator for AHS, Raelene Fitz, called a meeting "unexpectedly" to inform the union that it plans to eliminate 500 full-time-equivalent (FTE) nursing positions over a three-year period beginning April 1, 2020.
Cutting 500 full-time-equivalent positions would mean layoffs for more than 750 front-line registered nurses because many nurses work part-time hours, the union said.
The plans were disclosed "in advance of bargaining for UNA's 2020 provincial collective agreement so that the union would have time to absorb the information and respond accordingly," the union said in a news release.
Alberta Health Services confirmed it shared information Friday with the UNA and two other unions — the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and the Health Sciences Association of Alberta — "regarding potential impacts to unionized staff of measures to enhance the efficiency and performance of the health care system."
Decisions are still being made, but AHS was required to disclose the measures as part of the collective bargaining process, it said in a statement.
'Alternative service delivery'
"In many cases this restructuring could also include alternative service delivery models that help deliver services efficiently while keeping jobs in the Alberta economy," AHS said.
UNA president Heather Smith had sought an immediate emergency meeting with Health Minister Tyler Shandro.
But Steve Buick, a spokesperson for Shandro, said the minister has no plans to meet with the unions because "that would be interference in bargaining that hasn't even started yet."
The government had promised "not to touch front-line health workers," Smith said in a news release.
"We do not believe Albertans will support this plan, and they should tell the premier so."
Premier Jason Kenney was at a business conference in Lake Louise on Friday, where reporters asked him about the cuts.
"We've always been clear that getting our province's finances back in order will require some reduction in the size of the overall public service, and that we hope to achieve that primarily through attrition," Kenney said. "My understanding is that's the goal of AHS management."
He said the recent Alberta budget increased the budget for health care by $150 million, "so there's actually no overall reductions in the AHS budget. We've kept our commitment. But they do have to find efficiencies to deal with the growing cost demands that come from an aging population."
Reductions through attrition
The nurses' union released a copy of a letter sent by AHS to UNA Friday morning.
"While our budget has remained stable, Alberta's growing and aging population means we need to be more efficient and focused in terms of health-care spending," the letter says.
It says that before April 1, AHS will use an "attrition-only" approach to reducing staffing numbers.
It is looking at the possibility of contracting out home-care services including nursing, palliative and pediatric care. "This would impact approximately 60 FTE," the letter says.
It says there are "no specific plans at this time" to close acute-care beds as continuing-care beds open, but that "this work may commence in 2020."
AHS says in the letter it will consider "all options available" to meet organization needs in the future, including "changes to staff mix, service redesign including changes and repurposing of sites, relocating services, reducing or ceasing the provision of services."
Smith told CBC News she is "incredibly disappointed" with the information relayed by AHS.
"People in this province believe the premier and the [United Conservative Party] were elected on the conditions of assuring the public that health and education front-line workers would not lose their jobs, and certainly this speaks something very different."
Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said nurses have consistently talked about facilities being understaffed.
"When they need to take a sick day there is no one to cover," Shepherd said. "They are under increasing pressure and ... it is taking its toll on people's health, both physical and mental."
The position on staffing reductions outlined by AHS is only the beginning, Shepherd said Friday, speaking to reporters.
"They're going to war with front-line health-care workers in the province of Alberta instead of providing them with support and the resources they need to address the growing pressures and workload," he said.
AHS employs more than 26,000 RNs.