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Province signs deals with private ambulances for patient transfers in Edmonton, Calgary

The Alberta government says new contracts for private ambulance services in the province’s biggest cities will improve emergency care, but critics say introducing more for-profit companies into the health system could make things worse.

The provincial government issued a news release Thursday announcing several budget commitments for emergency medical services (EMS), including awarding contracts to Guarding Ambulance Ltd. in Calgary and Associated Ambulance and Services (Whitecourt) Ltd. in Edmonton.

The companies will transfer patients, who do not need emergency care, between health-care facilities in those cities, the release said, adding that thousands of non-urgent transfers occur in each city per year.

“This strategic initiative will enable Alberta Health Services to help ensure that ambulances and paramedics are available to respond to emergency medical calls in Calgary and Edmonton — and the surrounding areas,” Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said during a related news conference Thursday.

The contracts open up 45 new resources to the EMS system in Alberta’s two largest cities — 26 in Edmonton, 19 in Calgary, said Marty Scott, executive director of EMS provincial programs at AHS.

They will be phased in, starting in June and July, Scott said. They will be fully implemented “later this calendar year.”

In addition to making more AHS ambulances available for emergencies, they should reduce the amount of overtime logged by paramedics, he said.

The provincial government is working to expand interfacility transfers in other communities as well, but the news release did not state where.

In a statement, Opposition NDP health critic Luanne Metz warned the decision could steal resources from the public system.

Some front-line paramedics have shared with the party that contracting this service will make the public system worse, and some question the records of some of the companies that have been awarded contracts, she said.

Metz and Chris Gallaway, executive director of Friends of Medicare, an Alberta-based public health-care advocacy group, referred to past attempts to privatize health care in Alberta, such as lab services and surgeries, to back their concerns.

“The government’s decision today is purely political, in spite of clear evidence that the privatization of emergency services is not a solution to our problems,” said Gallaway. “These services are currently being delivered by the public system and there’s no reason they shouldn’t continue to be.”

Money for ambulances, reviews

The government also announced spending on the EMS fleet, as well as an air ambulance review and paramedic workforce study.

The 2024 budget rolled out at the end of February. It included $26.2 billion for the health ministry this year and laid out a three-year, $35-million spending plan for the EMS Vehicles Capital Program.

On Thursday, the government announced that $25 million of that money will come this year. It will be used to help replace ambulances at the end of their life and maintain other vehicles in operation throughout the province, according to the news release.

A woman with brown hair with an Alberta flag in the background.
The 2024 budget committed to spending $35 million over three years on the EMS fleet. On Thursday, Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said $25 million of that will come this year. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

“These investments are pivotal in enhancing system capacity, stability and response times,” LaGrange said during the news conference.

The budget also earmarked $2 million for an independent review of Alberta’s air ambulance program and a paramedic workforce study, the news release said.

The air ambulance review will examine multiple aspects of the system, such as response times and efficiency, the release said.

“The air ambulance review will have significant impacts on rural Albertans,” Martin Long, Alberta’s parliamentary secretary for rural health, said during Thursday’s news conference.

The workforce study, meanwhile, will gather feedback from front-line paramedics and emergency communications officers about the challenges they face on the job and how to make things better at work, the release said.

It will also survey paramedics about things like mental health supports — and access to them — and workforce mobility, among other things, the release said.

The study will try to find ways to grow the paramedic workforce in Alberta, recommending improvements in recruitment, work environment, retention and training, the release said.

The ambulance funding and the upcoming examinations are further evidence that there is a commitment to ensure paramedics have what they need to do their job well when Albertans need them, said Alberta College of Paramedics registrar Tim Ford in the news release.

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