Province unveils $1.8B plan to expand Red Deer hospital

The Alberta government is promising to spend $1.8 billion to expand the struggling Red Deer Regional Hospital.

Construction to start within the next 3 years

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre serves nearly half a million people in central Alberta. (Heather Marcoux/CBC)

The Alberta government is promising to spend $1.8 billion to expand the struggling Red Deer Regional Hospital.

The hospital — which serves close to half a million people in central Alberta — has been plagued by bed shortages and backlogs for years, and regularly operates above capacity. But the troubles have been heightened by increased demand and staffing shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Premier Jason Kenney said his government's $1.8-billion commitment will begin with Thursday's budget, when $193 million will be earmarked over the next three years. 

The allocation of $193 million includes the $100 million previously pledged by the government in early 2020. At the time, construction work was slated to begin in 2021; however, it did not get underway.

"This is a banner day.… Mark it down, Red Deer, as a historic day for this community," said Kenney who described the commitment as the single-largest hospital expansion in the history of Alberta's health-care system.

"Too many families in this part of the province have gone through adversity in getting adequate care for their loved ones despite the often heroic efforts of our front-line health-care workers."

The provincial government has faced growing calls to address capacity problems at the hospital.

"Through the peak of COVID waves, too often we had to transfer patients out of this hospital, sometimes by medevac to Calgary and Edmonton, because the ICUs were overflowing," Kenney said.

A 2015 report from Alberta Health Services (AHS) concluded the hospital was short by more than 100 beds.

"Mark it down, Red Deer, as a historic day for this community," said Premier Jason Kenney, seen here in this file photo from November. (The Canadian Press)

Health Minister Jason Copping said the funding will add 200 beds — bringing the total from 370 to 570 — and three more operating rooms, for a total of 14, as well as a long-awaited cardiac catheterization lab.

"This expansion will enable us to better meet the health-care needs of this community and assure that Albertans get the service that they need close to home," he said.

'Monumental' announcement

Red Deer Mayor Ken Johnston, who began advocating for hospital expansion when he was a city councillor, welcomed the announcement.

"Today is a monumental day," he said. "This announcement is life-saving. It is life-affirming. And it is life-changing."

Doctors, who have been raising the alarm for 15 years, are relieved.

"I actually cried a little bit," said a Red Deer orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Keith Wolstenholme, as he described his response to hearing the announcement.

"I had an emotional, visceral reaction. It just means a lot to everybody who works at Red Deer Regional Hospital … and to our patients most of all."

According to Wolstenholme, the $1.8 billion exceeded his expectations.

"That's the number we actually need to provide the care for our patients — that our patients deserve. I think that's a number that puts us in line with other areas of Alberta as far as investment per capita," he said.

"I think the data is pretty clear that this is what we need. That we have not had equitable treatment in the past, that … we haven't been providing the care we should be able to provide. I think there's a recognition of all that."

But Wolstenholme is worried an increase of three operating rooms will not be enough, noting the 2015 report identified Red Deer would need six more suites by 2025.

"That will not cut it. That will not reduce surgical wait times.… So that part needs tweaking."

Dr. Kym Jim, a Red Deer nephrologist and internal medicine specialist who is with the Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta, said he was surprised by the extent of the commitment. 

Because Red Deer does not have a cardiac catheterization lab — which allows specialists to insert a tube into a patient's artery and eliminate deadly blockages — heart attack patients are routinely sent to Calgary and Edmonton for care.

"Unfortunately, there's a list of families that you could talk to [about] how important that would have been for their loved one that isn't here today," he said.

"This will unquestionably save lives. This will deliver care for people closer to home. This will have people survive heart attacks better. This is the kind of care that is standard of care in the world today and it will now be deliverable to central Albertans." 

But Jim is worried about how the hospital will deal with demand in the years before the expansion is complete.

"We need programs today, delivered now. We can't really wait three to five years," he said, pointing to the need for operational funding to maintain staff, work through surgical backlogs and to beef up programs such as cardiac rehabilitation.

The provincial government said the entire project will be done in phases and is expected to be complete by 2030.

While the timelines are unclear, Copping said some construction will start within the next three years.

David Shepherd, health critic for the NDP, said it was the previous NDP government that put the first investment into the planning work for the Red Deer hospital and that the UCP halted that work in 2019.

"The premier then promised construction would start in 2021, and now with today's announcement we're hearing it might be three more years or more," Shepherd said in a release.

"The bottom line is Albertans can't trust the UCP with health care or to keep their promises."

With files from Jennifer Lee


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?