An Alberta Health Services ambulance. Image credit: Mitchell Smith/Flickr

Is the Kenney government’s determination to force reluctant municipalities to turn over 911 calls to a provincial Emergency Medical Services (EMS) dispatch centre a prelude to privatization of provincial ambulance services?

It’s certainly unlikely to be the paltry $6 million the United Conservative Party government claims this will save, especially given the high political cost of fighting municipalities infuriated by the plan foisted on them last fall by Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro.

Last week, citing deteriorating ambulance service, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo stopped directing calls to the consolidated provincial EMS dispatch service. A defiant Don Scott, mayor of the region that includes Fort McMurray, dared the government to fire him for his council’s unanimous decision to go back to dispatching local EMS calls locally.

Instead, lawyers for the provincial health ministry and Alberta Health Services (AHS), the province-wide public health agency that now runs the centralized EMS dispatch system from call centres in Calgary, Edmonton and Grande Prairie, asked an Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench judge for an injunction ordering the rebellious municipal council to follow orders.

The calculation by Premier Jason Kenney’s issue managers seems to have been that no matter how unhappy Scott and his council colleagues are with ambulances being dispatched to the wrong addresses or not turning up at all, they’re less likely to risk a fight with a superior court judge than a bunch of politicians in Edmonton.

Since as long as it does the paperwork right the province has the power to set up a centralized dispatch service for ambulances if it wants to, there’s not much any municipality can do to stop the unpopular change.

On Friday, Justice Kent Davidson granted a temporary injunction to AHS, ordering Wood Buffalo to go back to transferring calls at noon on Saturday. The municipality gets to make its case on March 9, when the government seeks a permanent injunction, but its chances aren’t good.

With the deal all but done, the UCP obviously calculates rebels like Scott and those in other places who might emulate him will drop it.

Which brings us back to the question of why an unpopular government would push an unpopular policy unlikely to win it many friends among its normal allies on small-centre municipal councils.

The only way the UCP’s stubborn persistence with this policy really makes sense is if it sets the stage for something else, to wit, privatization of the provincial ambulance service.

Neoliberal nostrums to the contrary, it’s highly doubtful that would make service more efficient, or save taxpayers money. It’s about as likely to be popular with voters as privatizing the fire department. But it might create the impression money is being saved at the provincial level — by transferring costs to municipalities and people who have to call an ambulance.

And never doubt the importance of market fundamentalist ideology to this government. It would let the UCP weaken the union that represents EMS personnel, allow false claims of wage savings by shuffling public employees into the private sector, lower essential workers’ wages as Kenney promised, and potentially win generous friends in the private emergency services business.

Centralized dispatch sets the stage for privatization by allowing the government to claim all provincial locations are properly covered even though the service is delivered by multiple fleets of private ambulances.

The same concern was raised in 2009 when then AHS CEO Stephen Duckett — the plain-spoken Australian “cookie monster” later fired for saying what he thought by the Progressive Conservative government of the day — brought municipal ambulance services across the province under the provincial umbrella.

“Albertans will see no difference in the excellent service provided by highly trained professionals, and will continue to access ambulance services by dialing 911,” the Progressive Conservative government promised when it implemented Duckett’s plan. That turned out not to be quite true in every part of Alberta.

On Monday, Brian Jean, former Wildrose leader, Fort Mac MLA and MP, and Kenney’s rival to lead the UCP, weighed in.

“I will never be convinced that Edmonton can run Wood Buffalo’s ambulance dispatch better than the local community,” he wrote in Fort McMurray Today.

Jean has resurfaced lately as a sharp critic of Premier Kenney. He attributed the government’s effort to an “anti-conservative tendency to reduce competition and create centralized monopolies” and called on Shandro to “to reverse his decision and stop this.”

The evidence of what the UCP is really up to is more likely illuminated by a letter from AHS received in the fall of 2019 by the union that represents AHS EMS personnel.

“In advance of 2020 collective bargaining commencing, we wish to provide information on a number of initiatives that could impact the AHS workforce and specifically the Paramedical Professional/Technical bargaining unit,” the AHS executive director of labour relations said in the letter to the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA).

Under the heading “Potential Contracting Out Initiatives That May be Considered in the Future,” the letter included “emergency and non-emergency response and patient transfer.”

The same day, HSAA President Mike Parker warned his union’s EMS members, “the UCP government is exploring options to privatize EMS in the province.”

“AHS has informed HSAA that it is exploring the following steps,” Parker wrote. They included “contracting out emergency, non-emergency and all patient transfer ambulance service, which will result in downsizing.”

Parker noted his personal frustration that EMS was not under the provincial umbrella when the health regions were consolidated into AHS.

This latest UCP fight, it’s said here, suggests the plan Parker feared is about to be implemented.

Still, Parker and Jean might be able to find some common ground on this one.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: Mitchell Smith/Flickr

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...