AHS laundry privatization stopped after Sarah Hoffman intervenes

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman is not apologizing for intervening in a decision by Alberta Health Services to privatize all hospital laundry services in Alberta.

High cost of replacing equipment cited as reason for outsourcing to private company

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman is being criticized for making decisions based on ideology. (CBC)

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman is not apologizing for intervening in a decision by Alberta Health Services to privatize all hospital laundry services in Alberta.

Last June, AHS officials were looking at outsourcing laundry services outside of Edmonton and Calgary. Documents released under freedom of information in response to a request from the Edmonton Journal called it the only "viable" option for sustaining linen services.

But late last year, that plan was put on hold after Hoffman asked AHS to show how privatization was better than keeping the existing facilities, which employ 144 people.

Critics say her decision was driven by ideology but Hoffman said on Wednesday she is doing her job.

"I'm not going to shy away from asking questions and providing some oversight," Hoffman said.

"It was clear that it was a decision that was driven by the past government as well, because they said, 'Don't even ask us for capital money.'  I'm saying, 'Tell us what it's going to cost and let's have a conversation.'

"We always know the buck stops with the minister."

Hoffman made a similar move last year by reversing a decision by AHS to privatize hospital lab services in Edmonton. She cancelled the $3-billion contract with Sonic Healthcare of Australia because she felt AHS hadn't considered other options beyond privatization.

No decision has yet been made on laundry services. Hoffman said AHS is still finalizing its numbers.

Ideology driving decision, opposition says 

Government documents show AHS was concerned that the laundries operated by AHS were burdened by aging equipment. Linens were at risk of not being cleaned to proper infection control standards. Malfunctioning equipment posed safety risks to staff.

The cost of upgrading or replacing the major facilities was estimated at $200 million and AHS didn't have the money.

Laundries in Calgary and Edmonton are operated by Edmonton-based K-Bro Linen Systems. AHS proposed outsourcing this linen services contract in stages to other parts of the province.

After Hoffman became involved, AHS looked at other options. A subsequent plan from March 2016 proposed replacing the AHS laundries with four hub processing plants which would use automated equipment and employ half the current staff.

Hoffman's intervention was criticized by opposition parties.

The Wildrose Official Opposition said other provinces outsource laundry services to private companies, freeing up money for health care.

"Whether it's their failure on wait times, the chaos surrounding lab services, or this latest debacle with linen services, the NDP government has continuously shown that ideology is more important than what's best for patients and taxpayers across the healthcare system," Wildrose health critic Drew Barnes said in a news release.

Liberal Leader David Swann, a medical doctor, said outsourced laundry services do not pose a threat to the public healthcare system.

"This ministerial intervention was based on ideology, rather than a solid business case," Swann said in a news release.

"We now know this plan is not going to save jobs or money. The millions of dollars required for AHS to do its own laundry could be better spent on patient care, salaries and critical infrastructure."