This op-ed was originally published in the Edmonton Journal, May 18, 2017
The 2017 Alberta Budget produced some encouraging news on seniors’ care after the steady decline that has occurred in this province over the past 25 years.
Since the early 1990s, the number of long-term care beds in this province has remained virtually unchanged, despite a 67% increase in Alberta’s population and an even larger increase in the percentage of Albertans who are seniors.
That 25-year period also saw a massive reduction in the number of acute care hospital beds, no new auxiliary hospitals, and a steady decline in the availability of home care.
The only significant increase in seniors’ care infrastructure over those years has been in the number of supportive living beds, which provide lower levels of care than long-term care facilities and also download many costs onto patients and their families. Many of these supportive living beds have been contracted out by Alberta Health Services to for-profit corporations. Research studies have shown that the need to generate a return for investors leads to lower staffing levels, less qualified staff, lower hours of care per patient, and a general decline in the quality of care provided compared to that of publicly-operated facilities.
The governing party’s election platform included a promise to end the previous governments’ experiments with privatization. That previous direction followed the agenda of corporations, many of them multi-nationals that eyed Alberta seniors as a business opportunity. The problem is that every dollar returned to shareholders is a dollar not spent on care. A shift away from that direction and toward public ownership in all aspects of our seniors’ care system would put the public interest ahead of shareholder profit.
Thus seniors are very encouraged by the recent provincial budget announcement of 345 new public long-term care beds (200 in Calgary and 145 in Edmonton), apparently the first step of a plan to build 1,000 new continuing care beds. The other 655 beds may be the lower level of care – supportive living. We also learned of an additional $200 million for home care.
These 345 new long-term care beds are a step toward meeting what the government concedes is a deficit of about 4,000 long-term care spaces. Much more will need to be done to meet the significant shortage. The new beds, nonetheless, are the first significant improvement in long-term care we have seen in decades. This is especially true with the government’s commitment that the 345 beds will be publicly operated, meaning higher-quality care.
The additional $200 million for home care, bringing the total annual expenditure on home care to $2 billion per year, is also very encouraging. The money comes as Alberta receives new federal funding from a bilateral agreement on health care between the province and the federal government.
However, we have been given no indication of how the additional home care funding will be allocated. The provincial government should use that new funding to follow through on its election commitment to phase in a new model for expanded public home care, rather than expanding its use of private, for-profit corporations to provide home care services to Albertans. That would ensure the money is fully focused on care for Albertans, rather than on profits for corporate shareholders.
Much remains to be done to improve seniors’ care in Alberta: expanded pharmaceutical coverage; improved monitoring of residential care; and an end to the downloading of care costs from the government to seniors and their families
However, the progress made in the recent provincial budget is the most significant we have seen in a long time. Seniors’ organizations across Alberta applaud that progress and are doing everything we can to ensure it continues and expands to other areas.
Noel Somerville, Chair
Seniors Task Force
Public Interest Alberta