Alberta health-care unions demand meeting with Premier Smith, Copping

Members of several Alberta health-care unions joined forces Monday to insist on a meeting with new premier Danielle Smith to “develop a plan to deal with the crisis in health care.”

Together, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) and the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) represent 122,000 front-line health-care workers.

Friends of Medicare was also set to join the unions for a news conference Monday afternoon, after Smith’s new cabinet was officially sworn in.

Read more: Alberta premier’s new cabinet includes familiar faces in prominent roles

Together, the leaders of those groups are urging the new cabinet to implement a plan “to fix the health-care system, which has been thrown into chaos by short-staffing.”

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Monday morning, the unions presented a letter to health minister Jason Copping, requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the staffing crisis and a plan to address it.

They suggest the plan would include a focus on retaining current workers in the public system and recruiting more.

Global News has reached out to Copping’s office for a response.

Click to play video: 'At least 6 EMS red alerts in Calgary over the weekend caused by staff shortages'

At least 6 EMS red alerts in Calgary over the weekend caused by staff shortages

“Fixing the health-care system in Alberta means hiring more staff,” said AUPE vice president Sandra Azocar in a statement. “There simply are not enough workers in the system to give Albertans the care we deserve.

“Albertans deserve better than receiving care in hospital hallways or having to wait hours in the emergency room. It’s time for the health minister to listen to workers on the front lines.”

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Read more: New cabinet under Alberta Premier Danielle Smith to be sworn in Monday

On Friday, Smith announced in a statement a 27-member cabinet with 11 parliamentary secretaries for a total roster representing close to two-thirds of the entire governing United Conservative Party caucus. Smith did not hold a news conference to answer questions from reporters Friday.

Some key ministers and responsibilities will stay in place, including Copping (Health).

“At our hospitals, we’re seeing lower and lower staffing levels while the workload continues to increase,” said Raj Uppal, president of CUPE Local 41 (Grey Nuns Hospital). “Positions are not being filled, patients are not getting the care they need, wait times are longer and longer.”

Smith has publicly blamed AHS for botching the COVID-19 pandemic by not delivering promised extra hospital beds to handle the flood of patients. She has also criticized the agency for directing employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19, saying that led to needless vacancies and staff shortages.

Click to play video: 'Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says vaccine mandates are “unacceptable” discrimination'

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says vaccine mandates are “unacceptable” discrimination

In her first news conference as premier, Smith said she believed the issue was a management problem; not a problem with front-line workers.

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“I want our front-line workers to know: reinforcements are coming. We cannot continue understaffing our hospitals and then forcing our front-line workers to work mandatory overtime, and be called in on days off, and have to cancel their holidays, that’s been the situation for the last two and half years,” Smith said on Oct. 11.

“A lot of that problem was created by policies at Alberta Health Services of having mandatory vaccinations. It prevented us from being able to hire back everyone who had been let go up until about two and a half months ago when cabinet directed them to end the mandate, prevented us from being able to graduate students across the full range of professions because they also had vaccine mandates, it prevented us from being able to hire from other jurisdictions through the full range of people who would have otherwise wanted to come here because of vaccine mandates.

“They, at the management level, made things even worse for our front-line.”

Smith has promised an overhaul of AHS management before the end of the year.

“What happens in a business when they fail to meet targets and they fail to meet direction, you change the management. So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to change the management.”

Click to play video: 'AHS board member resigns in protest of Danielle Smith’s comments'

AHS board member resigns in protest of Danielle Smith’s comments

UNA, in a post on Instagram, called Smith’s comments “ill-informed,” adding that about 97 per cent of health-care workers under AHS chose to get fully vaccinated.

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During the UNA’s annual general meeting last week, president Heather Smith said governments need to recognize the law of supply and demand and pay nurses more.

Read more: Alberta nurses formally agree to new collective agreement

Heather Smith also said overhauling the healthcare system “for no justifiable reason” will not help fix the nursing shortage.

“Our governments have to face the fact that they have to pay nurses more in Alberta,” Heather Smith said at the union’s AGM last week. She said the province — and others — have to recognize the law of supply and demand.

If they don’t, she said, “Alberta nurses are going to go away and work somewhere else.”

Read more: Premier Smith says journey to fix Alberta health-care system will be ‘bumpy’ and ‘perilous’

“The stress caused by short staffing is causing mental injuries to our members and impacting patient care,” said HSAA president Mike Parker. “This government needs to be doing more to improve working conditions so we can retain the professionals we currently have. We need to make Alberta a preferred employer so we can recruit and train more people to take on health care roles. And we are calling for the immediate restart and expansion of mental health and social programs, including harm reduction, to ease the burden on the system.”

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The premier agreed this is a “working conditions problem,” but added she doesn’t think it’s a personnel shortage.

“If we can give them a promise that we’re not going to burn them out, maybe they’ll return. Maybe if we show some respect for our front-line workers and show how much we care about their working conditions and the quality of life they have, maybe so many wouldn’t leave in the first place and others would come back in,” she said Oct. 11.

“What we’ve seen the last two-and-a-half years, is that the working conditions that have been created by Alberta Health Services have caused so many people to leave the system.”

The premier said Alberta not having a vaccine mandate will help attract health-care workers from other jurisdictions. She also said she’s working with Citizen and Immigration Minister Kaycee Madu on fast-tracking recognition of foreign health credentials. Smith said she also wants Alberta to convince recent health graduates — LPNs and nursing aides from MaKami College, for example — to stay and work in Alberta rather than taking jobs elsewhere.

Click to play video: 'Alberta nurses, NDP concerned about Premier Danielle Smith’s plans for health care'

Alberta nurses, NDP concerned about Premier Danielle Smith’s plans for health care

Alberta NDP health critic David Shepherd said in a news release Monday that the group responsible for the critical staffing shortage is the UCP.

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“This government exhausted and attacked doctors, nurses and healthcare workers, driving many out of practice and even out of the province.

“Now, rather than lead, Danielle Smith insults health workers in order to dog-whistle to conspiracy theorists living on the dark web. It’s clear her plan to dismantle Medicare as we know it by undermining and disrupting the public health care system is based on misinformation and a refusal to listen to medical experts and frontline workers. Her plan will only create further chaos and ultimately, a collapse in care,” Shepherd said.

“Instead of announcing plans to fire people, an NDP government will focus on our plans to hire back health workers, build new capacity and improve care at all levels.”

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