Record-high health spending in Alberta budget doesn't solve main issues, say doctors and unions

Doctors and workers unions in Alberta say record-high health spending in Budget 2023 doesn’t solve the big issues plaguing the health-care system — especially ongoing staffing shortages.

The UCP government promises $24.5 billion in health-care spending in Budget 2023

A bed stretcher in a hall. People in scrubs can be seen walking down the hall.
Alberta's health care system continues to face staffing shortages across the province. (hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

Doctors and workers unions in Alberta say record-high health spending in the budget for 2023-24 doesn't solve big issues plaguing the health-care system — particularly ongoing staffing shortages.

Tuesday's budget promises $24.5 billion in health-care spending, an increase of four per cent, close to $1 billion, from the previous year.

It comes with $15 million over three years to get new ambulances on the road or to fix existing ones and includes goals to hire nearly 3,600 Alberta Health Services staff by March 2024.

The budget also includes targets to churn through more surgeries to reduce long wait times, increase the numbers of home-care workers and expand primary care.

But for some frontline workers and the unions representing them, that isn't enough.

"I'm just very concerned that this is more of an attempt to tell people that everything is OK in health care," said Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA). 

"It's not OK."

She said the government keeps sending messages that help is on the way, but UNA's members haven't seen any significant improvements to the system lately.

Workers are still bearing the brunt of staffing shortages, and 3,600 new staff means nothing if nothing is being done to retain them, Smith said.

"I have been skeptical of suggestions that we are really dedicating the resources we should be for an expanding population in this province."

HSAA president Mike Parker says Budget 2023 shows that the province doesn't understand how the health care system works. (HSAA website)

Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, agrees. He said in a statement that they expected to see funding for increased staffing for mental health and addictions, lab workers, diagnostic imaging and more.

"We've been listening to the Premier and Health Minister praise the contributions of our members, but this budget does not reflect their words," said Parker in the statement.

"This shows a lack of understanding of how the health system works, it will not solve the ongoing health-care crisis and it continues to put Albertans' lives at risk."

More staff needed

Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents more than 60,000 health care workers, said he thinks the health system is only getting this infusion of cash because an election is coming.

"Any new money going in now is only to cover the kinds of cuts we've seen over the last few years," he said. "So once again, it's unpredictable. It's not clear where this province is going."

 All members want is to go to work and do their jobs well, and go home to their families and rest without constant strain on their well-being, Guy Smith said. But that isn't addressed in the budget.

"[The health-care system] relies solely on those frontline workers. If they're not healthy and safe and able to work at their full strength, then the system is going to suffer as a result."

As an emergency room physician in Edmonton, Dr. Warren Thirsk is looking at the positive side of the budget, and says more money is always good news.

Though he does question where the money is being spent, and how much of it is going toward infrastructure projects that should have been addressed a long time ago.

"It's people that look after people. It's not beds, it's not a building, it's not empty ambulances — it's the people inside it," said Thirsk.

Rebuilding EMS

Matt Osborne, president of the Alberta Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics Association, welcomes the investments.

"But how the money is spent and how this is put back into rebuilding EMS and rebuilding the workplace for paramedics is going to be more important," said Osborne.

Matt Osborne, president of the Alberta Firefighters Association, says paramedics need to stay in their communities in order to rebuild EMS in the province. (CBC)

Too often, he says, paramedics are stretched to their limits. So it's critical that with extra ambulances and staff, paramedics are kept in their communities.

And to ensure the province doesn't reach the same level of crisis, Osborne says one main step is needed.

"We need to make sure that we're attracting people to become paramedics because right now, the career of our paramedics is the shortest we've ever seen it."