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Province says new private ambulance services will relieve pressure on AHS

Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange speaks at a press conference in Edmonton on April 11, 2024. (Dave Mitchell/CTV News Edmonton) Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange speaks at a press conference in Edmonton on April 11, 2024. (Dave Mitchell/CTV News Edmonton)
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Alberta Health Services (AHS) is partnering with private companies to help transport non-emergency patients between medical facilities.

At a press conference Thursday, Health Minister Adriana LaGrange announced the province had signed contracts with two ambulance companies to provide inter-facility transfers (IFT) in Edmonton and Calgary.

LaGrange said those services will free up AHS ambulances in those cities and surrounding areas.

"Transferring low-acuity individuals that need to go between health facilities, it relieves pressure on the overall ambulance system so that the higher acuity ones can be dealt with by the paramedics who have the advanced life-saving capabilities," LaGrange said.

Edmonton will get 26 units from Associated Ambulance and Services (Whitecourt) Ltd., while Guardian Ambulance Ltd. will provide Calgary with 19.

Ambulances will also service smaller communities within 50 kilometres of those cities, and units are expected to come into service in June and July.

The Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), the union representing paramedics in Alberta, opposed the announcement in a press release Thursday.

"It was only a few months ago that this government corrected its failed approach to for-profit health care after a complete failure to move community laboratory services to DynaLIFE," said HSAA president Mike Parker. "Today, they are setting Albertans up to face the same problems with EMS."

The HSAA said Medavie West, which owns Guardian Ambulance Ltd., had a detrimental effect on emergency services in New Brunswick after taking over management in 2017.

In a 2020 report from the New Brunswick Auditor General, the company was found to lack oversight and to have underserved rural communities. 

"Not only is this government failing to learn from its own mistakes with for-profit health care in labs, but it is also choosing not to learn from others' mistakes with the exact company they are providing an IFT contract to," Parker said in the release.

Dr. Luanne Metz, the NDP critic for health, also criticized the announcement Thursday.

“Front-line paramedics are telling us that contracting out this service will make an already failing system even worse and they’re worried about the record of some of the companies to whom contracts have been awarded," Metz said.

Marty Scott, AHS executive director of EMS provincial programs, said the private ambulances will be dispatched by AHS and held to the same protocols and standards as provincial ambulances.

Scott said an inter-facility transfer pilot project in Red Deer suggests the added services will free up ambulances in both cities and rural communities, where resources have been pulled in the past to support urban shortages.

"Very quickly into the pilot, we recognized that rural communities were experiencing better coverage because resources were being sent out from Red Deer to take patients rather than sending the local resource," Scott said.

According to the province, there are around 174,000 inter-facility transfers each year.

Scott said AHS is already considering other Alberta communities where the services could be used.

LaGrange also announced an independent review of air ambulance services and a paramedic workforce review have been initiated. She said a report is expected in the late summer or early fall.

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