Critics say fix seniors care to stem 'growing chaos'

By Renata D'aliesio, Calgary Herald

Alberta needs to fix faltering seniors medical care to help ease pressure on strained hospitals, opposition politicians said Friday in the wake of a perilous warning from emergency ward doctors.

In a letter this month to Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, the doctors warn of a pending "potential catastrophic collapse" in emergency wards at major hospitals due to increased wait times from severe overcrowding.

Indeed, the doctors note more than half of acute-care beds in some emergency departments are occupied or blocked by patients who should be elsewhere, such as nursing homes.

"There's growing chaos in the health-care system," NDP Leader Brian Mason charged. "These beds are blocked because of the government's backwards strategy for long-term care in the province."

Alberta Health statistics show the average number of people in hospitals waiting for a continuing care bed was 761 last fiscal year, compared with 703 in 2008-09.

The province's target is 505 people, but as of the end of September, 759 Albertans were in hospitals instead of in continuing care -- 50 per cent greater than the government's goal.

Another 1,109 Albertans residing outside of hospitals were on the province's continuing care wait list last month, said Don Stewart of Alberta Health Services.

In Lethbridge on Thursday night, Premier Ed Stelmach said he was aware of the letter from emergency physicians, which calls for improved access for patients.

He noted the health minister announced earlier this week that additional beds will be opened to address a variety of medical needs, from acute hospital care to addiction treatment and hospice.

Stelmach said the province's goal is to make sure patients are in the appropriate medical centre. He cited the government's continuing care strategy, which pledges to add 3,000 continuing care beds over the next three years. "This is part of improving access and it's also putting the patient first," the premier said.

"There are many people in an acute care bed that need a more appropriate setting, and this is our seniors."

Grant MacEwan political scientist Chaldeans Mensah suggested the latest warning from emergency doctors poses a political threat to the Stelmach Conservatives as the fall legislative session is set to begin Monday. He noted Zwozdesky had been soothing concerns about contentious changes, including the creation of a centralized medical board.

"The health-care issue coming back to the fore is threatening because it opens up old wounds and it's not something you want heading into the next election," Mensah said.

All of the opposition parties plan to press the government on health-care problems in question period next week.

Wildrose Alliance MLA Heather Forsyth and Liberal MLA Kevin Taft said the Conservative government has long known about the pressures outlined in the emergency doctors' letter.

"It's one more indicator that this government is struggling with one of the most basic elements of delivering health care," said Taft, the party's health critic.

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