Members of several Alberta health-care unions joined forces Monday to insist on a meeting with new premier Danielle Smith to “develop a plan to deal with the crisis in health care.”
Together, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) and the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) represent 122,000 front-line health-care workers.
“We are the experts,” said AFL’s Karen Kuprys. “We care about every patient we see… but we are struggling.”
“They need to listen to front-line practical and organizational knowledge,” said AUPE’s Sandra Azocar. “We know where the gaps are, where the solutions are.”
Friends of Medicare also joined the unions for a news conference Monday afternoon, after Smith’s new cabinet was officially sworn in.
Heather Smith said the UNA has had “virtually no real communication from this government — particularly looking at health — since the government changed in 2019.”
However, she is hopeful Health Minister Jason Copping will respond. She’s not sure about the new premier.
“The previous premier didn’t find the time or will to meet with United Nurses of Alberta. I will wait with bated breath for this one.”
Together, the leaders of those groups are urging the new cabinet to implement a plan “to fix the health-care system, which has been thrown into chaos by short-staffing.”
“Our hospitals, we’re seeing lower and lower staffing levels where the workloads continue to increase,” said CUPE Local 41’s Raj Uppal, which represents workers at the Edmonton General and the Grey Nuns.
“Positions are not being filled. Patients are not getting the care they need. Wait times are getting longer and longer,” she said. “We need provincial staffing strategy.”
Bonnie Gostola with AUPE said the burden being placed on the front line of healthcare has been growing for many years and the pandemic exacerbated it. She said front-line workers often feel the brunt of patients’ frustrations and anger.
“We’re all workers. The crisis of healthcare is one that’s been created by a government that’s decided to take us down a road of privatization and thinking that gap can be filled by agency workers,” Gostola said.
“We are tired. We are done… We cannot do this anymore and they’re now leaving the profession.”
Monday morning, the unions presented a letter to health minister Jason Copping, requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the staffing crisis and a plan to address it.
They suggest the plan would include a focus on retaining current workers in the public system and recruiting more.
Heather Smith said it boils down the “four Rs”: retaining the current healthcare workforce, convincing some who left to return, respecting the workers who are there, and recruiting more workers.
She emphasized though that the focus on getting healthcare workers who left to return is not about “the few that have left over the vaccine protections,” but rather those individuals who left because of “unbearable workload and moral fatigue.”
In an email, a spokesperson for the health ministry said Minister Copping has met with the leaders of UNA, AUPE and HSAA in the past year and “he’ll be happy to meet with them again once we have plans in place to discuss with them.”
Giving Albertans better access to care is Copping’s No. 1 priority, Alberta Health spokesperson Steve Buick said.
“To do that, we need to rebuild the health workforce, which is under strain across Canada and in other countries. We need to do more and act faster to get more staff into the system.”
He said now that Copping has been reappointed and sworn in, he’s “working on plans to do that, working with all our partners and building on the work that’s been done to date.”
A record $22 billion has been spent on health care this year, Alberta Health said. The budget is increasing by $600 million each year for three years.
The ministry said there are 1,900 more RNs and 300 more paramedics working in the system now than in 2019.
New funding ($31 million) was added to create 2,600 more seats in training programs for RNs and health-care aides, according to Alberta Health.
“Fixing the health-care system in Alberta means hiring more staff,” Azocar said. “There simply are not enough workers in the system to give Albertans the care we deserve.
“Albertans deserve better than receiving care in hospital hallways or having to wait hours in the emergency room. It’s time for the health minister to listen to workers on the front lines.”
On Friday, Smith announced in a statement a 27-member cabinet with 11 parliamentary secretaries for a total roster representing close to two-thirds of the entire governing United Conservative Party caucus. Smith did not hold a news conference to answer questions from reporters Friday.
Some key ministers and responsibilities will stay in place, including Copping (Health).
Smith has publicly blamed AHS for botching the COVID-19 pandemic by not delivering promised extra hospital beds to handle the flood of patients. She has also criticized the agency for directing employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19, saying that led to needless vacancies and staff shortages.
In her first news conference as premier, Smith said she believed the issue was a management problem; not a problem with front-line workers.
“I want our front-line workers to know: reinforcements are coming. We cannot continue understaffing our hospitals and then forcing our front-line workers to work mandatory overtime, and be called in on days off, and have to cancel their holidays, that’s been the situation for the last two and half years,” Smith said on Oct. 11.
“A lot of that problem was created by policies at Alberta Health Services of having mandatory vaccinations. It prevented us from being able to hire back everyone who had been let go up until about two and a half months ago when cabinet directed them to end the mandate, prevented us from being able to graduate students across the full range of professions because they also had vaccine mandates, it prevented us from being able to hire from other jurisdictions through the full range of people who would have otherwise wanted to come here because of vaccine mandates.
“They, at the management level, made things even worse for our front-line.”
Smith has promised an overhaul of AHS management before the end of the year.
“What happens in a business when they fail to meet targets and they fail to meet direction, you change the management. So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to change the management.”
UNA, in a post on Instagram, called Smith’s comments “ill-informed,” adding that about 97 per cent of health-care workers under AHS chose to get fully vaccinated.
During the UNA’s annual general meeting last week, president Heather Smith said governments need to recognize the law of supply and demand and pay nurses more.
Heather Smith also said overhauling the healthcare system “for no justifiable reason” will not help fix the nursing shortage.
“Our governments have to face the fact that they have to pay nurses more in Alberta,” Heather Smith said at the union’s AGM last week. She said the province — and others — have to recognize the law of supply and demand.
If they don’t, she said, “Alberta nurses are going to go away and work somewhere else.”
The UNA president said the healthcare crisis “didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen because of COVID. It’s been building,” she said Monday. “We have the legacy of a government with a very aggressive view of what healthcare workers contributed to this province going back pre-pandemic.
“It is not surprising that we have forced… many healthcare workers… to consider whether Alberta is a place they want to practice.”
Heather Smith said that, for the first time in her over 40-year career, there are agency nurses not just in rural areas, but working in acute care, ICUs and emergency departments in hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary.
“This never happened,” she said. “It’s a sign of just how desperate we are to have resources.”
“The stress caused by short staffing is causing mental injuries to our members and impacting patient care,” said HSAA president Mike Parker.
“This government needs to be doing more to improve working conditions so we can retain the professionals we currently have. We need to make Alberta a preferred employer so we can recruit and train more people to take on health care roles.
“And we are calling for the immediate restart and expansion of mental health and social programs, including harm reduction, to ease the burden on the system.”
The premier agreed this is a “working conditions problem,” but added she doesn’t think it’s a personnel shortage.
“If we can give them a promise that we’re not going to burn them out, maybe they’ll return. Maybe if we show some respect for our front-line workers and show how much we care about their working conditions and the quality of life they have, maybe so many wouldn’t leave in the first place and others would come back in,” she said Oct. 11.
“What we’ve seen the last two-and-a-half years, is that the working conditions that have been created by Alberta Health Services have caused so many people to leave the system.”
The premier said Alberta not having a vaccine mandate will help attract health-care workers from other jurisdictions.
She also said she’s working with Citizen and Immigration Minister Kaycee Madu on fast-tracking recognition of foreign health credentials. Smith said she also wants Alberta to convince recent health graduates — LPNs and nursing aides from MaKami College, for example — to stay and work in Alberta rather than taking jobs elsewhere.
Alberta NDP health critic David Shepherd said in a news release Monday that the group responsible for the critical staffing shortage is the UCP.
“This government exhausted and attacked doctors, nurses and healthcare workers, driving many out of practice and even out of the province.
“Now, rather than lead, Danielle Smith insults health workers in order to dog-whistle to conspiracy theorists living on the dark web. It’s clear her plan to dismantle Medicare as we know it by undermining and disrupting the public health care system is based on misinformation and a refusal to listen to medical experts and frontline workers. Her plan will only create further chaos and ultimately, a collapse in care,” Shepherd said.
“Instead of announcing plans to fire people, an NDP government will focus on our plans to hire back health workers, build new capacity and improve care at all levels.”