AHS invests $8.3M to hire more full-time paramedics, temporarily

As the province’s EMS system struggles to keep up with demand, Alberta Health Services says it is investing $8.3 million to increase full-time employees — temporarily — and will hire more casuals to cover sick time and vacation time. 

The money will transition 70 casual positions to temporary full-time positions, while 30 full-time positions in Calgary and Edmonton that were hired temporarily in 2019 will continue. 

“We need to do our best to support our paramedics and all health-care workers now as we continue to see high demand on our health-care services, and this decision by AHS should provide some tangible short-term relief as we work on longer term solutions,” Health Minister Tyler Shandro said in a news release Monday.

AHS says the system has seen higher call volumes this year and says it’s related to everything from the pandemic, excessive heat and wildfire smoke to a return to more normal activity following the lifting of restrictions.

Shortages

Data obtained by CBC News through a Freedom of Information request show the number of red alerts — meaning no ambulances are available — soared in Calgary in 2020. 

In 2018, there were 917 occurrences. In 2019, there were 669, and there were 3,324 in 2020. 

Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents 28,000 health-care workers including paramedics, said in a release that the funding “doesn’t actually add a single paramedic to our overburdened health system.”

Parker said the HSAA is glad to see casual paramedics now get benefits but more hires are needed. 

“Every shift is being run short. Without hiring more new paramedics, the current government continues to put the system, our members, and every Albertan needing urgent medical care at risk,” he said.

Paramedics who have spoken to CBC News say trucks often sit idle due to a lack of staff to operate them. 

Numbers for Edmonton have not yet been released under a separate Freedom of Information request. Information for individual health zones or the province as a whole is not tracked, according to AHS. 

Calgary reported 3,569 red alerts between June 2020 and May 2021, while Edmonton reported just 626 red alerts over the same period, according to documents obtained through a freedom of information request by the Alberta NDP.

Alberta Health Services confirmed to CBC News that the NDP numbers were accurate. 

Orange alerts in Calgary, meaning there are just one to three units available, also climbed. In 2018, there were 14,051, falling to 11,542 in 2019 and then rising sharply to 36,570 in 2020. 

Overtime and sick leave

Overtime hours in both Calgary and Edmonton fell between 2018 and 2020, while sick time rose in both cities. 

In Calgary, sick time went from 84,873 hours in 2018 to 104,406 hours in 2020. In Edmonton, it went from 67,588 hours in 2018 to 87,096 in 2020. 

Data on sick time for the province as a whole was submitted in a format that could not be compared with the cities, and a followup request has not yet been fulfilled. 

Paramedics raised concerns over their working conditions last year and spoke of the toll it has taken on their mental health

“This funding helps us keep paramedic numbers stable so we can continue to respond to emergencies. We also continue to work with our emergency department partners and the Government of Alberta on new strategies to shorten the time it takes to transfer care from an ambulance to the appropriate hospital department so that paramedics can return to service sooner,” Darren Sandbeck, chief paramedic of EMS, said in a news release. 

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