Alberta Health Services has backed away from changes to physiotherapy coverage set to take effect April 1, that would have resulted in middle-income Albertans paying more out of pocket for treatments.

In an email statement to CBC, Alberta Health Services, spokesperson Kerry Williamson said  AHS has decided to extend the current system by one year, until March 31, 2018.

"At this time, we will not be making changes to the way contracted physiotherapy is being delivered in Alberta," wrote Williamson.

Sandra Azocar, with Friends of Medicare is pleased AHS has put changes on hold for a year

Sandra Azocar with Friends of Medicare. (Friends of Medicare)

"We've listened to the concerns raised by physiotherapists and we want to make sure these concerns are addressed before we move forward," he added.

Physiotherapists, and healthcare advocates were concerned the new model would affect the health and quality of life for those who are just above the income cut-off line.

AHS was set to cover more services to those considered lower income, and reduce covered treatments for those who are middle or higher income.

'Extremely good news'

"This is extremely good news. I'm glad the government is going to be taking a step back," said Friends of Medicare executive director Sandra Azocar.

"We were quite concerned about the unintended consequences of the previous plan to make changes," she said.

Azocar says the new model would have left some clients, particularly seniors, straddling the low-income margin, unable to afford treatment they require.

"Sometimes we leave people that are just marginally on top of that income level, who require these services and would not be able to afford them out of pocket," Azocar said.

Simon Cooke

Simon Cooke, president of Physiotherapy Alberta (Physiotherapy Alberta)

Private physiotherapy clinics have been preparing for months for what they thought was coming April 1, said Simon Cooke, president of Physiotherapy Alberta. 

"I'm shocked," he said. 

Cooke welcomes the reversal, saying there's still a need to look at a provincial model to standardize coverage.

"The hardest hit people would have been the working poor or people who are struggling to get by and aren't sure they could afford to spend any money on their health and well being, at a time when they might be having trouble putting groceries on the table or paying their rent," Cooke said. 

Standardizing coverage

Physiotherapy coverage varies substantially across Alberta, said Sean Chilton, vice president of collaborative practise nurses and health professions with AHS, in an interview Jan. 11.

The intention behind the model change, he said, was to make coverage standard across Alberta.

"Depending on where you are, depended on the services you were provided, and certainly there was inequity in how that was being provided," he said.

AHS said it will spend the next year consulting with physiotherapy providers on a new model.

According to the AHS website, all residents, regardless of income, are currently entitled to up to two treatments per year for things like sprained ankles, neck and back strains and conditions related to arthritis; while low-income clients are entitled to six treatments.

That coverage will continue at least one more year.