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Alberta to spend $100M to upgrade operating suites, reduce surgery wait lists


EDMONTON — Alberta is spending $100 million to upgrade hospital operating rooms and move some low-risk surgeries to smaller facilities and private clinics.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro says that means an extra 17,000 surgeries will be done in the 2020-21 fiscal year and about 30,000 more each year by 2023.

"Albertans are going to get quicker access to the surgeries that they need closer to home," Shandro told a news conference Wednesday at Edmonton's Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute.

There are to be renovations to operating rooms and some new surgical suites in Calgary, Edmonton, Grande Prairie and Lethbridge.

Some low-risk surgeries are to be moved from major hospitals to regional ones, and more private clinics are to be used to do operations covered under medicare.

It is part of a broader $500-million commitment in the United Conservative government's 2020 budget to reduce wait times to within clinically acceptable limits for a range of procedures.

The province aims to have an extra 80,000 surgeries done by 2023, making more use of private clinics, which currently handle about 15 per cent of surgeries.

Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd questioned where Shandro will find doctors to do the work, given Alberta Health is making changes to pay and billing rules that he said could drive physicians away.

"At at time when we're making enemies of basically doctors, surgeons, ER physicians across the province — where is the minister going to find the capacity amongst our medical professionals to perform these surgeries?" asked Shepherd.

In recent days, the NDP has recounted in the legislature stories of doctors who are reconsidering whether to stay in Alberta.

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Doctors who bill the province would have to give formal notice to Alberta Health Services before leaving. Dr. Verna Yiu, the head of AHS, said so far that hasn't happened.

"We have not seen any official requests for physicians leaving."

The province has been locking horns with the Alberta Medical Association since Shandro announced last month he was cancelling the existing master agreement with doctors and introducing changes around billing and physician compensation as of April 1.

Alberta wants to move more doctors away from a fee-for-service payment model to alternative ones, which could include doctors getting paid per patient.

While total physician compensation remains flat at $5.4 billion this budget year, the AMA says changes to fees, particularly around patients with complex needs, could force some rural and family practices to close, displacing patients and causing domino problems throughout the system.

Each side has accused the other of twisting facts and figures. The AMA says Shandro's ministry is using faulty data to accuse them of making far more in salary and compensation than doctors in comparable provinces. Shandro says there is much misunderstanding surrounding the billing changes.

"There is a lot of misinformation that is going around and, a lot of it, unfortunately, is promoted by the AMA," said Shandro.

"This is about making sure that (patients) are getting the care that they need and we're going to continue to make sure that physicians in Alberta are among the highest paid in the country."

Alberta has more than 10,800 doctors split evenly between general practitioners and specialists. Most work in urban areas.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2020

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press