Prentice launches review of rural health care in Alberta

Premier Jim Prentice wants a quick diagnosis of the problems facing health care in rural Alberta, but opposition parties say the Tory government should already know the remedies.

On Tuesday, Prentice and Health Minister Stephen Mandel launched a review of rural health care with a panel that is slated to make its first report to the government within 90 days.

“The timeline clearly is short, we recognize that. That is intentional. We need to see practical and tangible solutions that can be implemented without delay,� Prentice said during an announcement in Olds.

“We need to see action to improve the way that rural Albertans are served by our health-care service.�

The first phase of the study will deal with communities under 1,250 people, while the next step will deal with population areas between 1,250 and 2,500. The final phase of the review will look at communities of more than 2,500 people. There are no timelines for the latter stages.

In his successful run for the Progressive Conservative leadership this summer, Prentice said he heard repeated concerns in rural areas that Alberta Health Services was overly centralized and lacked local input into decision-making.

The review panel will be chaired by Lloydminster MLA Richard Starke and will include former Alberta Medical Association president Dr. Allan Garbutt. Shannon Spenceley, president of the College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta, and Bonnie Sansregret, chair of the Consort and District Medical Centre Board, are the other members.

The group has been asked to identify communities that need attention and review existing services and facilities, in conjunction with existing health advisory councils.

Issues under examination will include access times, specialist services, rural facility usage, community engagement, professional recruitment and the link between health-care services and economic development.

Opposition parties said there have already been numerous studies and plans developed to deal with the pressing issues in rural health care.

Wildrose MLA Heather Forsyth said AHS updated its community and rural health framework in 2012, and the provincial health ministry already funds a rural physician action plan.

“They’re begging and waiting to be implemented,� she said.

“The priorities are more rural physicians . . . more investment in primary care, ending ‘divorce by nursing home,’ fixing ambulances, wait times. All of those are issues that need to be dealt with now.�

NDP health critic David Eggen said that after 43 years in office, the PC government is trying to fix problems of its own making in rural Alberta, such as a lack of long-term-care facilities and an insufficient number of family physicians.

“The Tories have been running rural health care specifically — and health care in general — for many, many years,� he said. “They should probably know what’s going on.�

A government-commissioned report in 2009 by the firm McKinsey and Co. suggested converting some rural hospitals into “ambulatory� walk-in clinics, noting many small facilities are located too close to each other and have low occupancy rates.

In 2013, the Alberta Health Services board said it would look at whether some small towns would be better off with community clinics or family care centres instead of existing hospitals, although it maintained closure was not on the agenda.

But Prentice stressed the purpose of the new review “is not about closing rural hospitals . . . It’s about quality of service that rural Albertans are receiving.�

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