The Official Opposition shared a letter from Alberta Health Services’ lead negotiator to United Nurses of Alberta Friday, revealing AHS will be eliminating about 500 full-time equivalent positions over three years.
The letter, dated Nov. 29, and sent to UNA’s director of labour relations, David Harrigan, said AHS needs “to be more efficient and focused in terms of healthcare spending.” The health agency said, while the budget has “remained stable,” Alberta is facing a growing and ageing population.
AHS explains it will use an “attrition-only approach” until March 31, 2020. Then, starting April 1, 2020, “AHS will use all options under the collective agreement to implement operational best practice.
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The United Nurses of Alberta estimates this move will mean at least 750 front-line registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses will lose their jobs, once job-sharing is factored in.
The union calls this “massive downsizing.”
“I think you will see most of happen very quickly,” UNA President Heather Smith said. “Currently we have language that says there can’t be involuntary layoffs. That language expires March 31 and I think you’ll see a lot of happen right after March 31.
“They’ve actually held a lot of jobs across the province as part of ‘vacancy management’ — they haven’t filled them with regular employees, which has had its own implications in terms of short staffing and overtime costs and that kind of stuff.”
Union leaders were part of a last-minute meeting with AHS on Thursday.
“From the tone of what we were told, we believe this is only the first wave of layoffs affecting RNs represented by UNA,” Smith said.
“AHS officials were also scheduled to meet bargaining representatives from other health care unions today. There are also clear indications that AHS plans to shift many of the costs of health care onto Albertans who require treatment,” Smith said.
“Premier Jason Kenney and other members of the United Conservative Party promised repeatedly during last spring’s election campaigns that the cuts they planned would not touch front-line health care workers,” she said.
Smith said losing 500 FTE amounts to about one million hours less of registered nursing care in Alberta.
“Our concern would be around safety of patients and the quality of care they receive.”
In a statement, the finance minister said the government has been “abundantly clear that spending restraint, change and innovation” would be required to sustain public services.
Travis Toews said the government wanted to be transparent and, in order to “respect the collective bargaining process,” told unions about potential restructuring.
“The MacKinnon report clearly showed the status quo is not a sustainable option. Despite spending far more per capita on services than other large provinces, our outcomes are no better and often worse. We were also clear about the need for an ongoing review of government programs to ensure they are efficient and effective, and that this could result in changes to the public service.
“This means that some difficult but necessary decisions are required to ensure available funding is directed to the front-line services Albertans need most.
“These could include changes to staffing levels, aligning resources to areas where need is greater, as well as finding alternative ways to deliver services that would keep jobs in the Alberta economy.
“We have the highest respect and admiration for all public sector workers. These potential changes do not change the value we place on their dedication to Albertans.”
“I really challenge Alberta Health Services to provide the evidence that these changes, as they make these changes, actually have savings, actually have efficiencies,” Smith said.
“This is shameful,” said NDP MLA David Shepherd, who is the Opposition critic for health care. “I can’t see any way this does not have significant negative impact on patient care.”
“This government has not been talking or consulting with front-line health care workers; instead what we see is they’re continuing to create chaos and uncertainty,” Shepherd said.
“We don’t know where these cuts are going to come from,” he continued. “What I’ve consistently heard from front-line health care workers is that they are understaffed, that when they need to take a sick day, there’s no one to cover, that they are under increasing pressure and that it’s taking its toll on people’s health both physical and mental.”
The AHS letter said other changes being considered in the future include potentially contracting out home-care services like nursing, palliative and pediatric care, which would impact about 60 full-time equivalent positions.
The UNA is concerned about the potential privitization of public health care services.
“AHS will continue to consider all options available to meet our organizational needs including changes to staff mix, service design including changes and repurposing of sites, relocating services, reducing or ceasing the provision of services,” AHS lead negotiator Raelene Fitz said in the letter.
Alberta nurses are set to begin 2020 collective bargaining talks.
The finance minister has said the government wants arbitrators to impose an average two per cent pay cut in 30 wage arbitrations involving more than 180,000 workers.
In some cases, he said, the province is asking for rollbacks as high as five per cent.
The government has also contracted Ernst and Young to conduct a review of AHS, AHS subsidiaries and Alberta Health operations.
In a statement, AHS said it shared information with unions Friday about potential impacts to staff but said decisions are still being made.
“Disclosure of these potential initiatives is a required step in the collective bargaining process and serves to be as transparent as possible about changes to staffing levels and the alignment of resources where they are needed most. In many cases this restructuring could also include alternative service delivery models that help deliver services efficiently, while keeping jobs in the Alberta economy. Ensuring quality care delivery will be front and centre for all decisions.
“AHS has worked hard over the last decade to find efficiencies across all areas of the organization. We continue to take steps to standardize care and seek more efficient ways of providing healthcare and using every healthcare dollar to bring the greatest value to Albertans.”
HSAA, the union of healthcare professionals, said it has been notified by Alberta Precision Labs, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AHS, that it is “seeking interest from private third-parties to take over parts of lab services in Alberta.”
The union said this move could affect 850 full-time equivalent positions.
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) said it also received a letter Friday, indicating between 2,000 and 3,000 FTE positions could be cut by the end of the 2022-23 fiscal year.
AUPE also said AHS informed it intends to cut up to 400 Auxiliary Nursing Care FTEs starting April 1.