Red Deer doctors warn of 'shocking' funding gap causing patients to suffer

The Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta released FOIP data showing Central Alberta has received a fraction of the health-care infrastructure funding that other parts of the province get. And the group is pushing back.

'What we found … was quite distressing,' said Dr. Kym Jim

Dr. Kym Jim has been calling on AHS to bring a cardiac catheterization lab to Red Deer for years. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Red Deer doctors, who've been calling for a hospital expansion and improved cardiac services in their region for years, say they've uncovered data showing central Alberta gets a fraction of the healthcare infrastructure funding that other parts of the province receive.

The group, called the Society for Hospital Expansion in central Alberta, obtained 10 years of data from 2008 until 2018 through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. They shared the information at a public meeting in Red Deer on Tuesday.

"What we found … was quite distressing," said Dr. Kym Jim,  internal medicine specialist and nephrologist in Red Deer.

 According to the group's calculations the central zone received $107 million in health infrastructure funding which amounts to $228 per person over the last decade.

Calgary's per person spending rang in at $1,633 and Edmonton received $1,118. The north zone received $2,086 per person and the south zone was given $1,513.

The data does not include projects worth less than $5 million, and the numbers reveal a provincial average in healthcare infrastructure spending that is six times the rate in central Alberta. If you factor in newly funded projects, the group says the gap is even wider.

"It is really quite stunning," said Jim.

"If it was … twice [as much it] would be a problem. Depending on how you look at the data, its anywhere from six to 10 times [as much]. And that is just not an order of magnitude that can be explained very easily."

According to Jim — who's been calling for a hospital expansion for a decade — patients are suffering as a result of the funding discrepancy.

Doctors have been warning heart attack patients in central Alberta are more likely to die, because without a cardiac catheterization lab they have to be sent to Calgary or Edmonton for life-saving treatment.

And, according to Jim,  there are long surgical and ER wait times in the Red Deer Regional Hospital. He says patients are regularly being treated in hallways and tub or shower rooms and Red Deer residents have to be sent to outlying hospitals to make room for those who are more seriously ill.

"This is entirely unfair and unacceptable," said Jim.

Hospital over capacity

There is no question the Red Deer Regional Hospital — which serves more than 400,000 central Albertans and is the busiest hospital outside of Calgary and Edmonton — is struggling.

The hospital expansion is on Alberta Health Services' (AHS) wish list for capital funding.

And according to AHS' own document, "[the Red Deer hospital] is currently not meeting AHS performance measure targets for emergency room wait times, length of stay, and also has longer wait times for surgical procedures. Medical beds have been consistently operating well over 100 per cent occupancy for a number of years."   

"We are asking every political party and the premier today, 'what are you going to do about it?' We are here to demand care. We are here to demand answers to this immediately," said Jim.

Patients speak out

More than 100  central Albertans — including those who say they've experienced the funding gap first hand — gathered in a Red Deer hotel for the announcement Tuesday.

"I always say to the politicians, quit blaming everybody else. Just get 'er done," said Joe Smith who ended up being sent by ambulance to Edmonton for life-saving treatment in a cardiac catheterization lab after having a major heart attack.

He describes the two hour ride as "pure terror."

Joe Smith, pictured with his wife Margret, was sent by ambulance to Edmonton for life-saving treatment after a heart attack. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

"It was terrible that we had to spend that [time] needlessly because we need that unit here," said Smith.

Two years earlier a family friend died while en route to a catheterization lab for treatment.

"They may be here today if we had a cath unit here," he said.

Mike Burlein has a similar story. He was sent by ambulance to Edmonton after suffering a heart attack at the end of January. His heart — weakened by the ordeal — is now functioning at 30 per cent.

"It's kind of a traumatic experience," said Burlein. 

"The two hours it took to get from Red Deer to Edmonton, the clock was ticking, so any damage to my heart was increased before I had the procedure done."

Mike Burlein's heart is now functioning at 30 per cent, after he was sent by ambulance to Edmonton after suffering a heart attack. His wife Monica Kaban had to drive on her own to Edmonton and didn't know if she'd arrive to find her husband dead or alive. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

His wife, Monica Kaban, had to drive on her own to Edmonton and didn't know if she'd arrive to find her husband dead or alive.

"I think its appalling. It's totally appalling … they're just compromising peoples' health," said Kaban who wants to see the hospital expansion built, including a cardiac catheterization lab.

"This needs to be done."

Doctors' demands

The Society for Hospital Expansion in central Alberta — which is made up of doctors and local residents — has launched a new public awareness campaign called "Demand Care."  Organizers are planning public rallies and have started a letter writing campaign.

They're calling on all political parties to commit to funding the Red Deer hospital expansion ahead of the provincial election campaign.

And they're demanding Premier Rachel Notley release a new needs assessment report — which the was expected to be complete last year — for Red Deer Regional Hospital.

Health Minister responds to funding concerns

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman is defending her government's record saying the first seven years included in the FOIP data, showing the funding discrepancy, occurred under a PC government. 

"We know that central Alberta deserves to have the healthcare facilities that meet their needs," she said.

While Hoffman says the Notley government would include a hospital expansion in a spring budget, she will not say how much they'd be willing to set aside for the project.

"Should the people of Alberta choose to re-elect … us as a government we will absolutely be investing in a hospital expansion in Red Deer. We know this is a priority," she said.

In the meantime, Dr. Jim  says doctors and patients in Red Deer will keep pushing to close the funding gap and get the hospital built.

 "Until you see the money, its not funded. And until you see it built, its not built."


Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.


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