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Nurses concerned about cuts, Alberta health minister hints at hirings after letters to union

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Alberta's health minister said Tuesday she's "really confident" the province will be able to hire more front-line staff to augment the current health-care workforce.

Adrianna LaGrange's response to reporters came when she was asked at the legislature about letters the union representing Alberta's registered nurses received at the beginning of December from the province's two major health providers.

Both Alberta Health Services and Covenant Health, in their correspondence dated Dec. 1, told the United Nurses of Alberta to expect changes to staffing given the provincial government's plan to change how care is delivered.

LaGrange told reporters Tuesday at the legislature "front-line job protection is (her) No. 1 priority."

"What those letters indicated is, contractually, we have an obligation with the union to notify them if possibly some positions may shift to another organization, and that is possible in the future," LaGrange said.

"Right now, we haven't made any decisions whatsoever. I've been very clear with the front lines when I've spoken at my town halls ... With that being said, we are protecting the front lines and, in fact, I think we're going to grow the front lines."

A month ago, Premier Danielle Smith outlined extensive changes to the Alberta health-care system, including reorganizing AHS into four service-delivery units all reporting to LaGrange.

In a letter from Lee McEwen, the executive director of labour relations for AHS, to David Harrigan, UNA's director of labour relations, AHS expects to identify "positions that will be shifting" once its mandate becomes clear and anticipates "reductions in positions within UNA's AHS bargaining unit flowing from the movement of functions outside of the organization."

McEwen said in the letter AHS expects the focus of its "mandate going forward will be the delivery of acute care in the province."

AHS was created 15 years ago under the Ed Stelmach-led Progressive Conservative government through the amalgamation of the province's nine regional health authorities, the mental-health board, the cancer board and the alcohol-and-drug-abuse board.

In Covenant's letter from Monica Williams, its senior director of labour relations, to Harrigan, the health-care provider said it "will continue to consider all options available to meet our organizational needs through this process, including changes to staff mix and service redesign, contracting out, changes or repurposing of sites or relocating, reducing or ceasing the provision of services."

UNA said the letters mirror a statement it received four years ago from AHS, ahead of contract negotiations.

The union said the 2019 letter outlined an AHS plan to eliminate an estimated 500 full-time jobs for registered nurses jobs over three years.

“This kind of mixed messaging only makes it more difficult to retain the nurses already working in dangerously understaffed workplaces and makes it even harder to recruit new nurses to work in Alberta,” UNA President Heather Smith said Tuesday in a media release. “This is the opposite kind of signal that AHS should be sending to nurses and health-care workers right now.”

UNA says the messages from AHS and Covenant contradict what LaGrange told representatives at meetings.

LaGrange said Tuesday she disagrees with Smith's statement, saying she's been clear with UNA about potential changes given the new organizational structures for Alberta's health-care system.

"We really value our nurses and all of our health-care professionals, particularly the front-line professionals that we have, and we are going to be looking to grow our front lines," LaGrange said.

The letters come as the province faces health-care staffing shortages. According to AHS, there are more than 20 hospitals and health centres reporting service disruptions due to staff shortages.

Opposition leader Rachel Notley, when told by reporters Tuesday of LaGrange's comment regarding the government's contractual obligation to UNA, said the health minister's statement is "not correct."

"They used language in that letter that was exactly the same as the language they used in 2019," Notley said.

"They talk particularly about a reduction in the workforce as a result of the changes announced last month to restructure health care, and they also talked about an increase in contracting out or the elimination of certain services.

"You don't need to give notice of those things if you're not planning on doing them. You have a minister promising one thing, and you have health officials promising another." 

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