Alberta Health Services says system stable as it manages staff shortages and bed closures

Alberta Health Services is pushing back against messages that hospital bed closures and staff shortages across the province are abnormal.

In a news conference on Friday, AHS executives said it is “common” to see bed closures during summer vacations, and that some of those closed beds aren’t essential.

“We have more individuals employed than ever before, but people are tired,” said Deb Gordon, AHS vice-president and chief operating officer.

“Many of them have been doing far more than their usual hours over the last 16 months. They need and deserve a break, and they’re less able to work extra shifts.”

Gordon and AHS president and CEO Verna Yiu emphasized that health-care services are available for people who need them.

They said they’re concerned people who should be seeking emergency care for a health problem will unnecessarily avoid hospitals.

Their reassurances come after health-care workers raised concerns about bed closures and emergency room shutdowns they say are anything but normal.

Earlier this month, AHS closed six of the 56 emergency department beds at the Royal Alexandra Hospital, due to temporary staffing shortages.

The Lacombe Hospital and Health Centre shut 11 of its 35 total beds due to a nurse shortage.

At last count, 125 acute care beds across Alberta are temporarily closed, which is about 1.5 per cent of the total, Gordon said. Most of those closures are in the north zone, which are jobs that are historically difficult to fill, she said.

There are 13 emergency department beds temporarily closed, or about one per cent across the province. Six of those beds are at the Royal Alex, and seven are in central Alberta, Gordon said.

Emergency rooms in Elk Point and Fort Vermilion are still closed part of the time due to staff shortages.

“We really don’t like to see this happen, but to reiterate, it happens every year, especially in the summer, when staff and physicians need to take time off,” Gordon said.

There’s been a “slight” increase in the job vacancy rate to 6.8 per cent in June from a typical six per cent, she said.

However, AHS ramped up staffing during the pandemic, so there are more positions that could potentially be vacated.

The organization is working with some of those temporary COVID-19 nursing hires to place them in permanent jobs elsewhere in the system, she said.

She said about 1,700 more registered nurses are working with AHS than there were in 2019.

Opposition leader Rachel Notley countered the AHS’s leaders’ messages, saying the government needs to listen to health-care workers who say the bed closures are atypical.

What’s not normal is a government seeking to roll back the wages of nurses and other health-care workers during a pandemic, and aiming to outsource jobs to the private sector, Notley said.

“It is unfathomable, unfathomable to me, that this government wants to tear down public health care at a time when its importance has never been more apparent to Albertans,” Notley said.

More to come…

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