Edmonton

Opioid crisis, COVID-19 in long-term care under Alberta auditor's microscope

How the Alberta government manages billions of dollars of extra federal funding to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic will be under the auditor general’s microscope next year.

The auditor will also look into how the province spends federal pandemic funding

Alberta's auditor will look into several programs related to the pandemic this year, including the protection of long-term care home residents, federal recovery funding and an isolation payment program that hit snags. (CBC)

How the Alberta government manages billions of dollars of extra federal funding to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic will be under the auditor general's microscope next year.

Alberta's auditor will also scrutinize the province's management of the pandemic in long-term care and supported living and delve into its handling of an opioid crisis that reached deadly new heights in 2020.

"In identifying potential areas to audit, our office will continue to look at areas of highest risk and importance, including programs and services that impact vulnerable citizens, and investments and activities designed to leverage economic recovery," says an audit plan for 2021-22 posted on the auditor's website.

Auditor Doug Wylie's office does not comment on policy decisions but analyzes whether program spending was effective, efficient and economical, according to the website.

As of its November mid-year fiscal update, Alberta's government anticipated at least $2.2 billion more revenue than budgeted from the federal government this year. That money is supposed to be funnelled to remediation work for abandoned oil and gas sites, to help schools operate safely during the pandemic, and to help retrain unemployed workers, among other things.

Last week, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney also announced the province would receive another $347 million in federal funds to pay three-quarters of the cost of pandemic bonuses for 380,000 frontline workers.

The provincial government also sped up its capital spending plans to help create jobs during the pandemic. Wylie's office will dissect that $10-billion capital stimulus plan.

The accelerated spending included more money for school maintenance and repair, water and road improvement projects and funding for municipal infrastructure.

More controversially, it included a $1.5 billion investment in the Keystone XL pipeline — a project now in jeopardy after U.S. President Joe Biden revoked its permit.

Opposition wants details of Keystone investment deal released

The pipeline was planned to shunt up to 830,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to Nebraska, where it would eventually make its way to the Gulf Coast.

The Opposition NDP has been asking the auditor to specifically investigate Alberta's investment in Keystone, which included a $6-billion loan guarantee to builder TC Energy.

"Placing a massive multi-billion dollar bet on a Trump White House did not create a single job here in Alberta and was essentially gambling with our money at a time when our economy is the most vulnerable and we can least afford it," NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips said in an interview on Friday.

NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips is particularly concerned with the Alberta government's investment in the Keystone XL pipeline, and what risk analysis was done before politicians made the decision to invest. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Phillips also wants the government to release the details of its deal with TC Energy so Albertans know how much of the $7.5 billion is at risk.

"It is a staggering amount of money," she said.

An emergency isolation benefit program that attracted numerous complaints from the public will also be reviewed by the auditor.

In March, the provincial government granted $1,146 in cash to people forced into isolation without sick pay. The temporary program was a stopgap measure while the federal government set up its emergency benefit funds.

However, people with outdated ID or no online banking access hit technical hurdles, and some who should have been eligible never received the cash.

Health care also under watch

Also in the auditor's sights will be residential seniors' care. Successive Alberta governments have failed to act on all recommendations from a scathing 2005 audit of long-term care centres or a 2014 follow-up report.

Wylie's plan says he will be following up on those outstanding recommendations.

As of Thursday, two-thirds of the 1,744 Albertans who had died from COVID-19 lived on long-term care or assisted living.

Phillips says she's grateful to hear it's a priority this year.

"We have people in this province that have been suffering alone in isolation for almost a year. People who are maybe at the end of life, people who are (in a) fragile medical state, and they're having to do that alone," she said.

The Opposition is particularly concerned about the vulnerability of a system that relies on relatively low-paid workers who often work multiple, part-time or casual jobs to make ends meet.

When the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 arrived in Alberta, some long-term care homes struggled to find enough staff to implement a public health order that restricted employees to working at one site.

Auditor staff also have their eyes on Alberta's opioid crisis. By October 2020, Alberta had already set a new yearly record for opioid poisoning deaths following a spike in overdoses last spring.

Between January and November last year, 997 Albertans died from opioid poisoning, according to the government's drug surveillance website.

Although the government is injecting money into addictions and mental health to expand access to drug treatment centres, it has also come under fire for ending funds for an injectable opioid agonist treatment (iOAT) program.

The auditor will also delve into a new suite of government software programs to manage human resources, finances and procurement called 1GX. Unions have raised concerns the new system is causing payroll problems for some employees.

In a short email on Friday, the premier's press secretary, Jerrica Goodwin, said government departments are prepared to work with the auditor's office and that audits on topical issues are routine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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