A photo of Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary.
Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary. Credit: Thivierr / WikiMedia Commons Credit: Thivierr / WikiMedia Commons

Alberta’s Kenney Government has an instinctive ability to make things worse in a crisis.  Much worse. Consider the hospital capacity crisis now roiling Alberta.

As of Friday, surgical patients at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre were being diverted to other hospitals, many well out of the Central Alberta region. Even appendectomies had to be sent away from Alberta’s third largest city, located halfway between Edmonton and Calgary 

“Earlier this week, ambulances lined up 14 deep in the Red Deer hospital parking lot waiting to reach emergency care,” Opposition NDP Health Critic David Shepherd told media on Friday after Red Deer paramedics were forced to practice parking lot medicine.

Alberta Health Services’ spokesperson insisted the problem is only temporary – although, under the circumstances, what else could he say? “We acknowledge that this will cause some stress and anxiety to some of our surgical patients, however, we have exhausted all efforts to avoid this temporary diversion,” Kerry Williamson told media. 

Meanwhile, a frightening letter sent to media Friday by front-line health care workers described triage lineups extending out the door of the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary. “Sick kids standing outside in the rain,” the unsigned letter said. “It is taking 2-3 hours just to be triaged adding to astronomical waiting times.”

“Patients are coming by private vehicle because when they call for an ambulance they are being told there aren’t any,” the letter says. “There are no available ambulances on the road. Let that sink in …” 

The things described in the letter can be confirmed. The author signed off: “We need nurses now. We need doctors now. We need more first responders now. We need more support staff now. We need more security staff now. We need more bed capacity now. We need more mental health beds now. The ship is sinking and we are all going down with it …”

Almost province-wide, the ambulance service seems to have ground to a near halt. Staff shortages are rampant in hospitals throughout the province. Long Emergency Room wait times are being experienced everywhere. 

And what has Alberta’s United Conservative Party done about it? 

Why, they’ve fired the competent, universally respected president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, the province-wide health authority!

Verna Yiu was probably the ideal person to lead AHS in a crisis like the one the organization now faces. She was trusted by every major group in the health care system. She had led the organization with a steady hand since her appointment in 2016. A year ago, AHS had extended her appointment for an additional two years.

So why would they suddenly fire her? 

Naturally, Premier Jason Kenney, Health Minister Jason Copping and the rest of the UCP cabinet have had little to say. But there were obviously two reasons:

1.     To mollify the UCP’s vocal and aggressive anti-vaccine base, which had targeted Dr. Yiu for her decision to mandate COVID-19 inoculations for staff during the pandemic, as Premier Kenney tries desperately to hang onto his job in the party leadership review vote for which mail-in balloting is continuing.

2.     To replace Dr. Yiu, who is known to strongly support public health care, with a CEO more likely to cooperate with the UCP’s extensive privatization plans – including for many surgical procedures. 

The UCP speaks the truth, though, when it complains that this crisis has been building for years, through the latter years of the Progressive Conservative governing dynasty, through the four years of the NDP Government, and up to the present. 

But when the NDP was in government, AHS under then health minister Sarah Hoffman implemented measures to reduce the staffing problems in Red Deer, where they have long been particularly severe. In recent months, though, staff shortages have been allowed to grow in Red Deer again. 

But this is where the UCP’s peculiar genius for acting in the wrong way at the wrong time to make a crisis spectacularly worse comes into play. 

Even a government trying to save its own bacon and implement controversial privatization plans would have been smart to slow down and leave a trusted, capable executive in place just as the crisis in the health care system started to turn into a catastrophe. 

Not these guys!

The problems facing health care in Alberta are not going to be easy, inexpensive, or quick to fix. 

Probably the only effective thing that can be done in the short term is to beg health care workers to stick around by persuading them their efforts are respected and things are going to get better.

Dr. Yiu might have been able to do that. A UCP cabinet bent on privatization, union busting, and covering its own collective backside, not so much. 

But with the UCP, it’s all politics, all of the time, and the consequences be damned. 

After the leadership review, the party will have to cope with either a leadership race to replace Mr. Kenney or the premier’s next desperate project, to survive a general election. 

While that goes on, zero attention will be paid to keeping health care afloat. Don’t blame nurses and other health care professionals if they decide to abandon ship.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...