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Busted! Alberta health officials cry poor and needlessly spend money

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Last year's thankfully abandoned plan to close Alberta Hospital Edmonton, the Alberta capital's world-class psychiatric facility, was touted by its advocates in Alberta Health Services and the provincial health ministry as a money saver.

This claim smacked of baloney from the get-go -- at least if you assumed that AHS, Alberta's single province-wide health "superboard," actually meant what it said when it promised to provide equivalent or better mental health services "in the community." After all, community services don’t come that much cheaper than institutional care, and critics were quick to point out that not a single acute-care psychiatric bed existed anywhere in the region but at Alberta Hospital.

Cynical minds suspected some other agenda was in play. Certainly it’s easier to privatize "community services." Clearly some developers had their eyes on the hospital's attractive sylvan site in northeast Edmonton. Whatever.

But conspiracy theories were forgotten when the provincial government changed course and ordered AHS to drop the scheme last January. By then it was painfully obvious to virtually everyone in the province -- even the government, astonishingly -- just how unpopular the notion of closing the psychiatric hospital had become.

It’s fair to say that if it had just been the hospital employees' union screaming, the plan would have gone ahead. But when psychiatrists literally by the dozen, police, family members of the mentally ill, the mentally ill themselves, Crown prosecutors and criminal trial lawyers, plus huge numbers of unaffiliated members of the public, joined in, the government of Premier Ed Stelmach threw in the towel.

Well, first they'd struck a committee in the fall to study the "transition to community care." That didn't fool anyone, so the premier changed health ministers, replacing a hard-right ideologue, Ron Liepert, with a kinder, gentler version who listened to critics with empathy. The new guy, Gene Zwozdesky, quickly tossed out the worst aspects of his predecessor’s  "reforms."

Defenders of the hospital couldn't call their fight a total success. The so-called transition committee held onto one bad idea from the old minister’s plans -- moving the 100-bed geriatric psychiatric unit from the hospital's campus to a busy area adjacent to West Edmonton Mall. Zwozdesky went along with this.

It was hard to understand why the province pressed on with this. It didn’t make any more sense than the bits they'd abandoned, and was controversial in its own right because it took over a partly completed facility that was to have been used for much needed long-term care beds. People who had made charitable contributions to help build the continuing-care building were furious, threatening a lawsuit.

Still, with the worst of the Alberta Hospital crisis averted, not very many Albertans gave much thought to what the provincial health care brain trust was thinking when it hatched the idea of closing Alberta Hospital.

Perhaps, upon reflection, this question deserved more study. At any rate, Albertans learned today through a document leaked to the hospital workers' union (which employs this blogger, it must be stated) that it would cost several million dollars less to upgrade the building that now houses the geriatric psychiatry program than to move it to the controversial new site.

The confidential briefing document -- which health authorities eventually admitted was genuine -- estimated the cost of upgrading the geriatric psychiatric building as less than $1.4 million.

The cost of the new facility in the city’s West End is officially estimated at $3 to $5 million. This, however, is almost certainly low-balled, and does not include the cost of moving the program. When the dust has settled, expect the move to cost more like $10 million.

Hospital administrators who have been pushing the move … for whatever reason … tried hard to spin the costs outlined in the document as covering nothing more than basic repairs. The document, however, makes it clear this is not quite so, and that the building has plenty of life remaining.

Meanwhile, the province and the health board claim they’re working on a long-term province-wide plan for mental health care.

The province, of course, also famously claims that it’s virtually broke, and that cutting costs is a vital necessity. The health board is likely to take a hard line in future wage negotiations with its employees.

So, given this, why are provincial officials pressing ahead immediately with an option that is both more expensive and less popular than leaving the program where it is? After all, leaving the program in place would work as cost-effective solution that could be either permanent or temporary.

Do last winter's conspiracy theories still hold water? Does AHE want to keep the door open more radical changes for Alberta Hospital? Or is this simply a case of foolish pride getting in the way of an admission by officials that they were completely wrong when they set out to close the hospital?

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