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Opposition grills Alberta health minister on looming AHS layoffs at committee meeting

Health Minister Tyler Shandro refused to say Tuesday how many layoffs will result from the UCP government's decision to move forward with an Alberta Health Services cost-cutting plan he initially said would see as many as 11,000 employees laid off, mostly through outsourcing.

Minister Tyler Shandro confirms government is moving ahead with cost-cutting plan

At a legislative committee meeting Tuesday, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the government is moving ahead with an Alberta Health Services cost-cutting plan, announced in October, which includes the outsourcing of laundry and lab services. (Legislative Assembly of Alberta)

Health Minister Tyler Shandro refused to say Tuesday how many layoffs will result from the UCP government's decision to move forward with an Alberta Health Services cost-cutting plan he initially said would see as many as 11,000 employees laid off, mostly through outsourcing.

Shandro appeared before the standing committee on families and communities to field questions about health spending outlined in the provincial budget released last month.

In his opening remarks, the minister cited the government's four-per-cent increase to the health budget, with $23 billion earmarked for 2021-22, which he called an "historic investment in health for our province."

But the question-and-answer portion quickly turned heated as NDP health critic David Shepherd tried to pin Shandro down on the job losses that will result from an Alberta Health Services (AHS) cost-cutting plan unveiled in October.

"Front-line health-care workers that we have spoken to about this were shocked, very shocked, that you had set a course for mass layoffs during a global pandemic unlike any we have seen before," Shepherd said.

"So Minister, can you just explain to the people of Alberta why you believe these layoffs are necessary?"

Shandro replied that "there are no layoffs" even as he confirmed the government will move forward with a "balanced and appropriate portion" of the AHS plan which includes the outsourcing of laundry and community lab services beginning in 2022.

There will be no layoffs of front-line clinical staff during the pandemic, Shandro said, and ultimately there will be a net increase of 2,940 AHS positions.

AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said that number is an estimate and the health authority has not yet determined the breakdown of those jobs.

AHS is planning for investment in areas such as the province's chartered surgical facilities initiative, continuing care, and the new Grande Prairie hospital, and also estimates 1,500 new positions are needed for the province's pandemic response, Williamson said.

In October, Shandro announced between 9,700 and 11,000 AHS employees will be laid off under the plan, most of whom work in laboratory, linen, cleaning, and in-patient food services. Those services will be outsourced to private companies.

At that time, Shandro also said AHS will eliminate some nursing positions through attrition. When asked about layoffs of front-line clinical staff after the pandemic, he said "I think any involuntary reductions will be minimal."

He said the plan's estimated savings of $600 million annually would be reinvested into the health budget.

AHS plan moving ahead 

Shandro's press secretary, Steve Buick, said Tuesday that the "plans are essentially as announced in the fall."

He said the requests for proposal for outsourcing of laundry and lab services are expected to be finalized and any layoffs will take effect in 2022. There are no specific timelines yet for the procurement process for outsourcing of housekeeping and in-patient food services, Buick said, but the changes are not expected to take effect until 2023 or later.

Buick pointed to the wording of AHS's request for proposal for lab services which states "the successful proponent(s) will be required to assume all impacted unionized, non-unionized and medical staff on the same or similar terms and conditions as exist prior to transition."

NDP health critic David Shepherd said the government should commit to cancelling its plans to lay off AHS staff. (Zoom)

Apart from the outsourcing of these services, Shandro confirmed to the committee that other AHS initiatives moving forward include new virtual care options, the elimination of 100 management positions, and the consolidation of regional EMS dispatch operations.
 
He said the government has scrapped plans to introduce income-tested deductibles for the seniors drug program.

At one point, Shepherd asked how many AHS positions will be eliminated or change hands in rural areas, and referenced the minister's "continued fight" with the province's doctors.

"A lot of misrepresentation regarding a lot of this," Shandro began his answer.
 
He claimed "there was no fight with the Alberta Medical Association," characterizing the year of public acrimony between the two as "difficult conversations with them, through which we were able to learn quite a bit from each other."

In February 2020, Shandro imposed a new compensation framework for doctors after unilaterally ending the AMA master agreement, sparking public outcry from the association and many of the province's physicians. In June, the minister ordered changes to the College of Physicians and Surgeons' practice standards to prevent rural doctors from resigning en masse.

The AMA is currently suing the province for $250 million. A few weeks ago, the two parties announced they had reached a tentative deal, one Shandro said he was pleased with but could not discuss during the committee meeting because it still must be ratified.

 At a press conference early Tuesday afternoon, Shepherd said the minister should commit to not laying off front-line AHS staff. He said Shandro refused to directly answer questions, claiming this is part of a pattern of behaviour from the government.
 
"They continually try to shift language and play games to try to fool Albertans about their intent," Shepherd said. "And yet again, I am convinced that is what we are seeing here."
 
The committee meeting continues Tuesday afternoon.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennie Russell

Investigative reporter

Jennie Russell is a reporter with CBC Investigates, the award-winning investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. Jennie specializes in accountability journalism and her work has been widely credited with forcing transparency and democratic change in Alberta. Contact Jennie at jennie.russell@cbc.ca and follow her on Twitter @jennierussell_.

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