Privatization of Alberta community lab services delayed until December

A plan to outsource community lab services across the province has been delayed by five months due to operational challenges, Alberta Health Services says.

'Significant operational work' needed to ensure smooth transition: AHS

A worker handles vials of blood.
Dynalife Medical Labs was expected to take over delivery of community lab services from Alberta Precision Laboratories on July 1. The takeover has been delayed until December, AHS says. (Shutterstock)

The private takeover of Alberta's community laboratory services is facing a five-month delay due to operational challenges, Alberta Health Services says.

Edmonton-based Dynalife Medical Labs was expected to take over delivery of community lab services from Alberta Precision Laboratories on July 1. 

The transition has been delayed until Dec. 5, Alberta Health Services (AHS) confirmed in an email to CBC News.

"Our detailed transition planning that has been underway since February has identified significant operational work and investments in communities across Alberta that must be completed to ensure a smooth transition of staff and service," AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in an email last week.

"We are committed to taking the time necessary for a transition of this magnitude and complexity, as we continue to face significant workforce pressures resulting from COVID-19." 

The delay in outsourcing services will have no impact on patients and won't affect employment of lab staff, Williamson said.

AHS announced in January that it would expand its contract with Dynalife, which already operates labs in Edmonton and some northern Alberta communities. 

Under the contract, Dynalife will take over the vast majority of labs where Albertans get blood drawn or provide fluid samples for medical testing. 

Health Minister Jason Copping has touted the deal as a cost-saving measure, but labour and health advocacy groups have been critical of the move. 

Under contract to AHS, Dynalife will deliver about 65 per cent of provincial lab work — amounting to 50 million tests per year.

The contract will include operations at both permanent and mobile clinics in cities and larger rural centres. Dynalife will also be responsible for all non-urgent hospital lab testing across the province.

Small or remote sites processing fewer than 25,000 community blood test collections per year will continue to be provided by Alberta Precision Laboratories (APL).

AHS has said it doesn't expect jobs to be lost through the privatization deal. Dynalife has agreed to offer lab workers the same or similar terms of employment that they have with APL.

The company is still expected to take on all unionized, non-unionized and medical-scientific staff under their existing collective agreements, where applicable, AHS said. 

'Absolute chaos'

Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), said the change has created unnecessary upheaval in the system. 

The union represents 6,000 workers in public and private labs across the province. 

"This statement from AHS — all it's telling me is that there is absolute chaos in the transition," Parker said. 

Parker described the ongoing transition planning as "rudderless" and disorganized. 

He notes that Mauro Chies, who had been helping to manage the takeover, has been tasked to serve as the health authority's interim CEO after Dr. Verna Yiu's abrupt departure.

"Things are not going as planned and it just clearly paints the chaos that's happening within the upper levels," Parker said. 

Parker said it remains unclear how many HSAA members will be affected by the takeover. 

The union has been excluded from transition planning and members have questions about how their contracts will transfer over, he said.

A plan to privatize these services has been in the works since 2019 when a government-ordered review found that outsourcing all remaining community lab tests could save up to $102 million a year. 

An AHS analysis later pegged the potential cost savings between $18 and $36 million a year. 

Parker said the changing numbers make him doubt that a for-profit system will benefit taxpayers. Profit margins will take precedence over patient care, he said. 

"We have lost control of our public lab service," he said.

The switch was unnecessary. It was a political decision.-Chris Gallaway

Chris Gallaway, executive director of Friends of Medicare, said the delay is troubling – especially for lab workers who remain concerned for their jobs – but Albertans should be more concerned about the move toward a for-profit lab system. 

"We see a delay now and we'll be paying for that," he said. "There's just a lot of questions, a lot of uncertainty. 

"It's another example where the government is more focused on their agenda of privatization than providing the services we need. The switch was unnecessary. It was a political decision."