AHS to maintain air ambulance bases despite recommendation to consolidate

Alberta Health Services will maintain its air ambulance services despite a recommendation to consolidate four northern Alberta bases, a relief to municipal leaders who slammed the recommendation as out of touch with the needs of their communities.

'There's a lot of lives at stake and we can't afford to do that'

Municipal leaders across northern Alberta say the recommendation to consolidate four air ambulance bases would have jeopardized the safety of their communities and remote areas. (Supplied)

Alberta Health Services says it will maintain its current air ambulance service, despite a recommendation to consolidate four northern Alberta bases. 

The news comes as a relief to municipal leaders across northern Alberta, who slammed the initial recommendation as out of touch with the emergency medical needs of their communities.

The review of Alberta's health-care system, compiled by Ernst & Young and released on Monday, said consolidating four of the province's 10 air ambulance bases could save $2 million annually. But Alberta Health Services is in the first year of a 10-year contract for air ambulance services, and consolidating the bases could result in penalties or a contract buyout. 

In a written statement on Wednesday, the health minister's office said the province will maintain the current air ambulance contract. Bases in Fort Vermilion, Peace River, Slave Lake and Lac La Biche will continue to operate, press secretary Steve Buick said.

The consolidation would be "a terrible idea," said Josh Knelsen, reeve for Mackenzie County, which includes bases in Fort Vermilion and High Level. 

"Up north, we're rural," Knelsen said. "We're remote. Isolation is a big factor. We can't afford to lose any medical services to any degree, to any extent in any of our communities."

The base in Fort Vermilion, a target for consolidation in the review, serves thousands of people in the northernmost parts of the province, including Little Red River Cree Nation — a winter fly-in First Nation where the ferry can't cross the frozen Peace River.

Knelsen said moving air ambulances to the base in High Level, or even further to Grande Prairie as the report suggested, could increase wait times and endanger lives. 

"There's a lot of lives at stake and we can't afford to do that," he said. 

Lack of nuance, mayor says

The idea to consolidate the air bases was one of 57 recommendations in a review released by the Alberta government on Monday. Ernst & Young was awarded a $2-million contract to look for savings in Alberta's health-care system. 

The report said four northern Alberta bases were significantly underused, meaning the majority of the air ambulance traffic was coming from other bases.

In Peace River, for example, 82 per cent of the air ambulance traffic came from other bases. Moving the aircraft to the next closest base in Grande Prairie, the report suggested, could reduce operational costs and serve the community from elsewhere.

MAP: Red markers indicate bases recommended for consolidation

But the recommendation lacked nuance, said Peace River Mayor Tom Tarpey. For example, the deep Peace River valley is prone to heavy fog. And while air ambulances can often take off from the local base in those conditions, he said, others can't always land. 

"What it appears to be is the consultant has canvassed AHS officials that are sitting in Calgary and Edmonton that have no concept of how life works out in the rural parts of this province and taken those sound bites, put them into text and reflected them back to the people that voiced those ideas," Tarpey said. 

Health Minister Tyler Shandro put the kibosh on another recommendation at a news conference on Monday. The report recommended the province consolidate rural hospitals, and even close five altogether, to save money. But Shandro repeatedly said no hospital closures will be on the table. 

"I think there's a tacit recognition by the minister of health that we need to look at these recommendations closer and with more depth," said Tarpey, after learning the province would maintain air ambulance contracts.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro confirmed the province will maintain contracts for air ambulance services, meaning four northern Alberta bases will not be consolidated. (CBC)

Lac La Biche Mayor Omer Moghrabi said he was confident the government would reject the recommendation once it reviewed the critical service the local air ambulance base provides to northeastern Alberta. 

"I would say I'm tremendously relieved," Moghrabi said. 

While the report noted consolidation would shave $2 million off the $15-billion AHS operating budget, Moghrabi suggested the move would not make fiscal sense once the government factored in contract buyouts or penalties. 

Slave Lake Mayor Tyler Warman said the local air ambulance base provides residents with quick access to specialized medical services in larger centres. 

"Without it, we are really swapping quality of care for economic gain," he said in a written statement on Wednesday.

With files from Paige Parsons