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Alberta Health Quality Council calls for single public oversight for lab services

The Health Quality Council is recommending the Alberta government move to a “single public sector platform” for delivering lab services in Alberta.
Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman asked the Health Quality Council to review lab services for Alberta. (CBC)

The Health Quality Council is recommending the Alberta government move to a "single public sector platform" for delivering lab services in Alberta.

The review, requested by Health Minister Sarah Hoffman last September, also urges the government to act quickly on lab issues in the Edmonton zone and northern Alberta.

The report suggests the private sector "can and does" play a role in delivering lab services in terms of innovation, flexibility and private capital.

Hoffman said the bar for the involvement of private companies will now be higher as they will have to demonstrate they can deliver services more efficiently than a public provider. 

"There still may be opportunities for private sector companies to partner with the government on the delivery of some services," Hoffman told a news conference Tuesday. "In those cases, where private companies are considered, they will need to demonstrate that there is a clear benefit to Albertans."

"Our government is clear that going forward, that the planning, governance and oversight of laboratory services are the responsibility of the government."

Last August, Hoffman announced the government would not proceed with a plan from the previous PC government to privatize publicly-funded laboratories in hospitals operated by Alberta Health Services and Covenant Health

At the time, Hoffman said she didn't see evidence privatization would improve the health of Albertans.  The government said it would review how to best deliver lab services before moving ahead.

The HQCA report found AHS didn't undertake a review to compare how privatization stacked up against other options.

'Sense of vindication' 

"In the work leading up to the RFP (request for proposals), alternatives for public or combined public-private options for the delivery of laboratory services in Edmonton and northern Alberta were not fully considered," said Charlene McBrien-Morrison, executive director of the HQCA. 

"Because of this, the HQCA's work was less of a retrospective review and more of a proactive assessment."

A steering committee will first look at fixing the situation in Edmonton and then move towards an integrated plan for the province, including what delivery system is most cost-effective, private, public or public-private. 

"I feel an incredible sense of vindication," said Elisabeth Ballermann, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents most lab workers in Alberta. 

Ballermann recalled how the government under Ralph Klein moved to privatization in 1995 and showed no interest in letting the public sector change how it worked. Ballermann said she was frustrated when the PC government moved again in that direction with the Edmonton lab services contract.

In 2014, Sonic Healthcare of Australia was chosen as the preferred vendor for the $3 billion, 15-year contract with AHS. The contract also included the establishment of a new mega-lab for the Edmonton region.

An appeal of that decision launched by existing provider and competitor Dynalife found Alberta Health Services had breached its duty of fairness in the request for proposal process, and it was scrapped.

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