EMS investment a good start but not enough, says paramedic union
Mike Parker says new data obtained by CBC shows EMS system at 'breaking point'
The president of the union that represents Alberta's ambulance paramedics and 911 dispatchers says new data on the province's ambulance response times confirms what they have been saying for months.
Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), says the government commitment to spend more on emergency medical services (EMS) legitimizes what the union has been saying for years.
"$64 million is a good start," he said. "I will tell you right now, it doesn't even come close to what is needed to get this system just to a level that is sustainable.
The money comes following a year of astronomical growth in 911 calls, ambulance red alerts and diminishing performance in EMS response times.
The HSAA began a social media campaign in response to publicize the issue but evidence remained anecdotal until CBC News was able to obtain hard numbers via a freedom of information request with Alberta Health Services.
The numbers show a dramatic increase in ambulance red alerts and 911 urgent disconnects. When an ambulance did come, an increasing number of Albertans waited for more than 30 minutes — more than five per cent of calls from Jan. 1-12 of this year.
"The reality of it is, somebody will die. I don't know when, but somebody's gonna die," said Lia Lousier, an Airdrie mother who was forced to beg 911 dispatch to send a fire truck to attend to her son Braeden Lousier-Hicks's broken leg when no ambulance was available.
Braeden has a rare genetic disorder that can lead to brittle and soft bones, among a number of other complications, which would have made taking her son to the hospital herself dangerous.
"There are a number that are medical parents in this area that rely on AHS to keep our kids alive," she added. "There's a lot of us and we're terrified — and terrified is not stretching the word. Like, it's literally terrifying."
AHS says at least half of ambulances should respond to emergencies within eight minutes in Alberta's two largest cities, Edmonton and Calgary, and 10 minutes for smaller towns and cities with populations of more than 3,000.
But in the most recent months of available data, EMS met the goals less than half the time.
Just 34.9 per cent of calls — significantly less than half — made it to an emergency in the prescribed time in 12 days of January this year in Edmonton and Calgary. Smaller communities faired better, but EMS performance met the goal on less than half the calls.
At the other end of the spectrum, AHS sets a 90th percentile limit in which no more than 10 per cent of calls can take more than 12 minutes in Edmonton and Calgary and 15 minutes in communities of 3,000 or more people.
But Jan. 1-12 numbers show 35 per cent of calls in Edmonton and Calgary took more than 12 minutes, and 24 per cent of calls took more than 15 minutes in smaller communities, blowing well past the benchmarks set out by AHS.
Both benchmarks show the system is being strained at the extremes but also in the middle, where regular response times are getting longer, says Parker.
$104 million for EMS and 911 dispatch
The UCP government pledged $64 million in increased funding for EMS services in Alberta in the next fiscal year — a 12.2 per cent increase over the previous year — intended to address the increased load across the system since the pandemic began.
Parker says that while the increased funding is a good start, a 12 per cent increase in funding still isn't enough when paramedics have seen a 30 per cent increase in workload just from the pandemic.
"The pieces that I'm not able to put together in a graph today is how long our folks are actually lasting on the job," he said.
He says there is also the increased workload from an increasing population, noting that paramedic staff numbers haven't increased in a decade while Alberta's population has "exploded."
About $40 million will also go toward 911 dispatch, which was centralized provincially in 2020 but also bore the brunt of the increased calls with urgent disconnects — where a dispatcher hangs up on a non-urgent call to handle incoming calls — that increased from a few dozen to hundreds per month.
The challenge for the government moving forward will be worker retention and investment in skills.
Alberta is competing on a global scale for workers and it is an increasing challenge to attract health-care workers to the province. This comes at a time when there is an enormous backlog created in the health-care system in the pandemic, according to Mount Royal University political science professor Lori Williams.
"The question remains whether there are enough people to actually fill in, so that those who are working aren't overburdened, and there are enough people to actually manage the calls that are coming in," she said.
To explore the data release further, download a copy of the spreadsheet given to CBC News
With files from Jennifer Lee
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