Alberta is seeking to contract more charter surgical facilities in the province, an effort the government says is aimed at cutting costs and alleviating patient wait times.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) is issuing requests for proposals in both the South and Central zones of the province for private facilities that can add surgical capacity, Premier Jason Kenney announced in Calgary on Wednesday.
The aim is to expand access to surgeries across the province and free up operating rooms in hospitals, he said.
According to the premier, there are over 70,000 Albertans awaiting surgery, and more than half of those are waiting longer than the "clinically recommended period."
"We contract out surgeries because doing that means we get more surgeries done more quickly," Kenney said.
No changes for patients, health minister says
The hope is for AHS to schedule an additional 1,350 surgeries in the Central zone and about 1,250 more procedures in the South zone, Health Minister Jason Copping said Wednesday.
Alberta's Central zone includes Drumheller, Lloydminster, Red Deer and Rocky Mountain House, while the South zone includes Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.
Copping said the services will be publicly funded with no charges for patients.
"It's the same service you get in the hospital, from the same surgeons, following the same clinical standards," he said.
Alberta Health and AHS have been increasing surgical capacity in hospitals and the number of surgeries at chartered surgical facilities as part of the Alberta Surgical Initiative, a plan focused on reducing surgical wait times.
Last year, AHS issued requests for proposals for chartered surgical facilities in Calgary and Edmonton, which the government says will allow the agency to target thousands of ophthalmology and orthopedic surgeries.
Announcement draws ire from critics
However, the announcement quickly drew criticism from advocacy group Friends of Medicare, who released a statement early Wednesday afternoon.
"This has never been about improving access or expanding capacity," said Chris Gallaway, its executive director.
"At the end of the day, this is about securing more profits for private health care operators."
It called for more transparency in regards to the government's health-care spending, and said contracting services is a way of "putting a public good in the hands of the private sector."
"We need to be improving access and expanding capacity in our public system, not undermining it with yet another privatization scheme," Gallaway said.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley also levied criticism at the initiative during a news conference the same day, saying it would take resources away from a struggling public system.
"Privatizing health care will make the situation worse," Notley said.
When asked for comment, the health minister's press secretary, Steve Buick, reiterated via email that the "contracted services are publicly funded services."
"The suggestion that they form a private system that competes with the public system is a misunderstanding that comes from political bias against any private provider," Buick said.
"Contracted services are part of the public system, they don't compete with other publicly funded providers for staff etc., except in the same general sense that all publicly funded health care hospitals compete with each other."
Buick also said the opposition's comments amounted to hypocrisy.
While in government, the NDP contracted 40,000 surgeries a year from private clinics, he said. However, NDP representatives said these contracts already existed with AHS.
"Our NDP government inherited several PC-era contracts between AHS and chartered surgical facilities," said David Shepherd, the party's health critic, in an email to CBC News.
"The NDP did not increase the use of private surgeries and made significant investments to support and stabilize our public system."
'The pandemic … stretched out the timeline'
Despite initiatives to help reduce surgery waiting lists, Copping also said Wednesday the province won't be able to meet its goal of ensuring all patients have their surgeries done in a clinically appropriate wait time by 2023.
"The pandemic has stretched out the timeline, but it's still … the right objective, and this announcement today is another concrete step toward achieving it," he said.
The province now expects to reach that target by 2025.