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Medical lab group pushing Alberta government to address gaps after cancelling superlab

The Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Sciences (CSMLS) says pulling the plug on the planned superlab in Edmonton will expand existing gaps in health-care access across Alberta.

Cancelling the $595-million project, which was approved by the NDP, was a United Conservative campaign promise.

READ MORE: Alberta UCP leader would scrap medical superlab planned for Edmonton

Lab services, estimated to cost the government $768 million a year, are currently delivered under a patchwork of public and private testing agencies. The NDP government wanted to put all those services under the control of one agency, to be called Alberta Public Laboratories, which would be a wholly-owned subsidiary of Alberta Health Services.

On March 11, Jason Kenney said it would be a bureaucratic “boondoggle” to reorganize lab tests that were already handled effectively by the private sector. He also said the UCP would revisit the entire plan to put all laboratory services under government control.

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LISTEN BELOW: Christine Nielsen with CSMLS joins the Ryan Jespersen Show

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said in June the province will save all but $23 million in construction costs and another $50 million will be saved by cancelling the planned buyout of private lab-testing provider DynaLife.

CSMLS, which represents about 2,000 private and public lab techs and assistants who collect samples to test for cancers, diabetes, chronic disease and prenatal health concerns, among others, in Alberta — and regulates about 4,000 workers — wasn’t surprised the lab ended up being cancelled when the Kenney government was elected.

READ MORE: Alberta government halts construction work on superlab site in Edmonton

Now, however, it feels it needs to advocate for some of the best elements of that lab plan to bridge gaps in health-care services.

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“Plan B needs to be struck and we’re not sure what that looks like,” CSMLS CEO, Christine Nielsen, said at a news conference in Edmonton on Wednesday. “Our goal will be to be involved with this government to help them maximize the resources that are currently here so that the lag time that we’ve had for development for new infrastructure can be caught up quickly.”

A meeting was recently set up with the ministry in August to discuss the society’s concerns.

“The shovels are out of the ground now, so I think that ship has sailed for the concept of the hub lab,” Nielsen said.

“Our job will be to find elements of it that are the most critical and advocate piece by piece on what that needs to look like and really try to pull together the integration that was expected to come with the hub lab.”

The health minister had strong words for the group, saying it is misrepresenting — and politicizing — the issue.

“Lab testing is an essential part of our health system and I have great respect for our lab techs, pathologists, and others who work in the labs,” Shandro said in an emailed statement to Global News. “There certainly are needs for investment in labs in Edmonton and I’m working to identify priorities as we prepare for the budget in the fall.

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“But I want to be clear: to claim our labs are “crumbling” is politically motivated, and to claim that patients are at risk is irresponsible,” he said

“We do more than 2 million lab tests a year; Albertans see the labs for themselves every day and they can see the labs do a great job, with no undue delays for routine collections and processing. We do send a small volume of complex tests out of the province (a fraction of 1 per cent) from both northern and southern Alberta, as we’ve done for years, and as do other provinces.

“To claim that represents a clinically inappropriate delay in care is nonsense… The real purpose of the superlab was in large part to replace DynaLife when the NDP spent $50 million of taxpayers’ money to buy it out in 2022. Whereas the NDP were going to fulfill their ideological goal of nationalizing lab services at a cost of 600 million tax dollars, our government is focused on a lab system that is based on evidence and meets the needs of patients.”

Watch below (April 22, 2019): Construction on a major project approved by the NDP has been halted. As Tom Vernon reports, news about the superlab in Edmonton comes as the province transitions to a UCP government.

Click to play video 'Alberta superlab project approved by NDP now on hold' Alberta superlab project approved by NDP now on hold
Alberta superlab project approved by NDP now on hold – Apr 22, 2019

The society says a lot of the health-care pathways for patients are heavily reliant on medical lab results.

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“When the lab was announced it was being cancelled it was because it doesn’t directly effect patients and that’s frankly untrue,” Nielsen said. “That’s part of our job… to make sure the public and other health-care workers understand the importance of lab services to doing their jobs and to maintaining optimal health for patients.”

“[The lab] was supposed to be a collaborative space to help address infrastructure needs, help address inefficiencies, help reduce costs and, at the same time, reduce turnaround time so we can deliver quality, fast patient care,” Alberta CSMLS director, Joel Rivero, said.

READ MORE: Alberta government keeps promise to cancel construction of medical superlab

The current system is bursting at the seams, he said.

“I’d say the critical issue is that we had solutions to help address the infrastructure and to help facilitate effective quality patient care. that plan was cancelled and we need to come up with a new plan and time is ticking because current contracts are expiring really quickly.”

READ MORE: Alberta clarifies $3B super-lab plan

Jason Pincock, CEO of DynaLife, said he is not surprised by the new direction the UCP government is taking and said DynaLife lab work is not affected by the plan to cancel the superlab nor scrapping the NDP’s plan to make the company public in 2022.

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Pincock said the aging equipment CSMLS referred to is operated by Alberta Health Services in public sector hospitals — and agreed more investment is needed.

“That is not reflective of the equipment that is DynaLife, said Pincock. “In fact, most of the equipment DynaLife is actually state-of-the-art technology.”

Pincock said DynaLife handles nearly 20 million lab tests out of its current downtown hub lab every year. Every test that is not required within the hospital is sent to DynaLife.

DynaLife, which has been operating in Alberta for 50 years, moved to the downtown hub in 2002.

“It was one of those magical opportunities where the perfect space was already sitting there waiting for us,” Pincock said.

“There is opportunity to further expand and currently there are no immediate concerns around space, certainly not in the downtown facility.”

DynaLife said it is looking forward to meeting with the United Conservative government to discuss future plans.

CSMLS also hopes it will be part of the new government’s work to review and replace medical lab services in the wake of the super lab cancellation.