NDP Health Critic Joe Ceci was recently in Airdrie and Cochrane to confirm what was already suspected about the state of our EMS service.
Information FOIPed by the opposition party showed Cochrane ambulances responded to 3,700 calls in Calgary last year, compared to 1,000 in 2019.
He says ambulances assigned to Cochrane, Airdrie, Strathmore, and Chestermere were dispatched to Calgary 30,000 times in the last three years.
"The nearest ambulance should respond immediately, regardless of where that Albertan lives. That's been happening routinely for many years, but the longer a community needs to divert its ambulances to other communities it increases the risk that an ambulance will not be able to arrive in its own community when needed."
He says paramedics are asking for three immediate actions. They need to get off shift on time, all paramedics should be offered permanent full-time jobs instead an 89-day temporary contracts with no benefits and job security, and AHS should provide more harm reduction services to ease the strain on ambulances.
"The drug poisoning crisis in our province is creating a huge demand on ambulances and emergency rooms, and this is entirely preventable," said Ceci.
"The trends we're seeing are distressing and there must be a call for action. We do not need more reports, we do not need more committees. Albertans need this UCP government to listen to the paramedics on the frontline and to act."
When pressed for specifics from the FIOPed information, he did not have further details available.
Paramedic Don Sharpe, who's about to retire after a 41-year career, has the specifics and has been forewarning the province about the ambulance crisis for the past decade. He has spoken about the issue with health care and paramedic professionals across Canada, has met with health ministers, and prepared papers.
Sharpe maintains one of the root problems is the time spent by paramedics in hospital hallways when they could be back out responding to emergencies.
Time and time again, paramedics have pointed to this as a major fixable problem that AHS has failed to address. They dread being left in the hallways, knowing they can better serve the public by responding to their calls for help.
But there's more.
Sharpe has developed his own 10-point plan to fix Alberta's EMS system (included at the end of this article) and number one on the list is to replace the current leadership to once and for all remove EMS from the grips of Alberta Health Services (AHS).
"I don't think AHS has any business anymore being involved in pre-hospital care. I think they've proven that, so we have to separate EMS from AHS, we have to stop listening to people talking about the opioid crisis and COVID because those are problems, sure they are, but we could have handled them if our system was healthy."
"Every problem we have is on leadership. There's not a single thing you can blame on the crews. They've done their best."
Despite these comments, Sharpe says he's an optimist. He believes something positive could come from the recommendations of the EMS advisory committee that are expected to be released at the end of August.
"I hear they have a number of recommendations that Alberta Health is not going to like. I think that they need to--and I mean the government and the EMS committee--make sure that when these recommendations come out that they're framed in such a way that AHS can't say no."
That includes incorporating the key points into a ministerial order.
Sharpe has no political affiliation and says he continues to promote the need for change with any party in power. When he started, the Progressive Conservatives were in power, followed by the NDP and now UCP.
While agreeing that the numbers Ceci presented were alarming, he says the NDP failed to address the issue when they were in power.
During a November 2019 presentation at the Essentials of Freedom Conference, Sharpe provided some AHS data from 2016 when the NDP was in power. EMS staff worked 135,000 overtime hours that year and spent an average of one hour per patient in transfers from EMS to the emergency staff of hospitals. A total of 653,000 hours were spent by paramedics in the hallways of hospitals, and there was an average of 35 red alerts per month between September 2016 and September 2017.
"They had a chance to solve this problem, and they were challenged in the Legislature back in 2017 by Dr. David Swan (Liberal MLA and one-time Grits leader), and Sarah Hoffman gave a couple of evasive answers. I wasn't impressed with her performance. When they had a chance to fix this, they didn't. In fact, a lot of people think they just hired a bunch more bureaucrats."
He also found the tone used by the NDP in presenting the information on Friday counterproductive.
"You know, that kind of rhetoric that demonizes the other party isn't helpful. I don't have a membership in any party. I will work with whoever is in power and right now the UCP is in power and we have to depend upon them, like we had to depend upon the NDP when they were in power, to do something about this."
Ceci slammed both Airdrie-Cochrane MLA and Airdrie East MLA Angela Pitt for not taking any action on the issue and focusing too much time on the current UCP leadership race.
It was just over a year ago that townhalls were held in Cochrane and other communities surrounding Calgary to form EMS citizens action groups. Here in Cochrane, they had completed their terms of reference by November.
At the core was a three-point action plan that included having non-emergency transfers completed by alternative sources, ending hospital wait times for EMS crews, and to stop flexing our local ambulances into Calgary and area.
Since then, the citizens' group has additionally promoted the need for residents to have a Plan B for when the ambulance doesn't arrive promptly and has promoted the need to have automated external defibrillators available in the community.