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'The system is collapsing': Alarm raised as 30 Alberta communities see health service reductions

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As the Alberta government continues to acknowledge "real strain" in the province's hospitals, at least one rural doctor believes the situation is far worse than the UCP will admit.

"It's no longer the system isn’t sustainable and it will collapse, the system is collapsing," Dr. Parker Vandermeer told CTV News Edmonton Wednesday.

He believes Alberta's hospitals and clinics are being propped up by “good will” and overtime.

"People are working shifts of unsafe length and it's being held together by nurses and physicians taking on higher volumes than what’s safe," Vandermeer explained.

The government has a map of "temporary bed/space reductions." More than two-dozen facilities, from High Level in the north to Bassano in the south, were affected on Wednesday.

In High Level, six of 21 acute care beds were closed due to "vacation, vacancies, illness."

In Bassano, the entire emergency department was scheduled to be closed after 5 p.m. Monday to Thursday until September due to "temporary lack of physician coverage."

"We’ve never seen 30 communities with health care closures," NDP MLA Christina Gray said while pointing a finger directly at the UCP government.

"Their severe mismanaging of the pandemic, ongoing push to privatize services and sustained attack on health care workers (is to blame)."

'NO IMPACT ON ACCESS FOR PATIENTS'

A spokesperson for the health minister fired back by saying the UCP has hired hundreds of new workers and increased health spending by $1.6 billion since taking over from the NDP.

"The strain on health care is real but the NDP’s attempts to politicize it are utterly phoney. Today’s 'news conference' was nothing but a pitch to the media to run yet another free campaign ad," wrote press secretary Steve Buick.

A spokesperson for Alberta Health Services said "higher-than-usual volumes of seriously ill patients" combined with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and "increased staff vacancies and absences due to illness" have caused "significant pressure."

"This is not unique to Alberta and is being experienced across the country. The global pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on health-care systems around the world," James Wood told CTV News Edmonton.

"We acknowledge that our (emergency department) staff are extremely busy, and that in some instances, wait-times are too long. We are committed to working closely with our physicians and frontline staff to improve access and bring wait-times down."

Wood said the temporary closures are happening so AHS can direct staff to where they're most needed.

"Most bed closures in smaller sites have no impact on access for patients, as normal occupancy levels are lower so the beds are normally unoccupied," he explained.

AHS currently has 200 more workers in emergency rooms than the system did a year ago, Wood said, and 250 paramedics and about 1,900 registered nurses have been hired since the pandemic started.

'THEY'RE LEAVING BECAUSE OF BURN OUT'

Healthcare problems are not unique to Alberta, as many other provinces have also described a "crisis" in their understaffed hospitals. Workers are leaving and new ones are tough to find, explains the president of the Canadian Nurses Association.

"We are seeing across the country an increase. They are leaving because of burn out," said Dr. Sylvain Brousseau. "Across the country we have 143,400 job vacancies in healthcare and social assistants."

As vacancy rates increase, Vandermeer and other doctors are calling on the Alberta government to build more long-term facilities, sign physician contracts and create more rural incentives to attract workers.

"These are things that are going to cost money now but are going to save money, benefit the patient, system and society in the long run," Vandermeer stated.

Wait times in Alberta increased roughly 50 per cent during the pandemic, but the province still has some of the lowest in Canada.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Chelan Skulski

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