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Province budgets $196 million increase to address EMS crisis in Alberta

Calgary Zone supervisor said EMS improvements are starting to show results.

Alberta’s Minister of Health, Jason Copping, outlined the improvements that he said the government was making towards addressing the EMS crisis in the province on Monday in the form of more ambulances, more paramedics, and a $196 million, three-year budget increase to match.

The 2023 budget has promised an increase from $601 million in 2022 to $740 million in 2023, $787 million in 2024, and $795 million in 2025, which constitutes the $196 million increase.

Minister Copping said the province is also part way through a plan to address paramedic and EMR shortage in the province from new graduates, targeted hiring of staff from other provinces, and from other countries such as Australia.

“There’s more money to hire more staff, more ambulances and new programs to create more capacity in the system, especially during peak hours,” he said.

“Many of these solutions were brought forward by frontline workers and key EMS partners who know firsthand what needs to change and how to fix the system.”

He said that the province has accepted 30 of the 53 recommendations made by the Alberta EMS Provincial Advisory Committee, and has begun work provincially on meeting the 45-minute target handover time from EMS to hospital staff for patients.

The province, he said, is also working on reducing the amount of overtime that paramedics face, and is investing $1 million into mental health improvements for paramedics province-wide.

“These initiatives and many more are starting to move the needle, but we can’t stop working now,” Minister Copping said.

“Changes that are being made today are all working together to lift up the entire system and give more Albertans better experiences in their health care system.”

Minister Copping was unable to provide detailed information as to how much of the $196 million increase would be directed toward Calgary.

Province claims decreases in waiting times for ambulances, at hospitals

The province, in their 90-day report from their Health Care Action Plan, said that they had managed to reduce the provincial wait time for ambulances by 22 per cent.

In urban and metro areas, that wait time they said was reduced from an approximate 21.8 minutes down to 17 from November of 2022 to Jan. 2023.

According to Alberta Health Service’s EMS dashboard, the 90th percentile time for responding to urban and metro emergencies has been steadily increasing since 2020. In Q1 of 2020, the time was approximately 12 minutes. And in Q2 of 2022, the last quarter with publicly disclosed data on the dashboard, that time was 17 minutes.

Within Calgary, the median response time has risen from approximately 7 minutes in May of 2020, to just above 10 minutes in Oct. 2022. The 90th percentile time (which 90 per cent of all calls are below) rose from 11 minutes in May of 2022 to above 22 minutes in Oct. 2023.

Matt Stevenson, operations supervisor, Calgary Zone, Alberta Health Services said that they have begun to see improvements in EMS response times in Calgary over the past few months as a result of the province’s initiatives.

“These benefits have also extended beyond the Calgary city limits. We’re seeing a reduced need for surrounding communities to provide coverage for the city, and as such, there has been an improvement in coverage in the surrounding communities,” Stevenson said.

“This is not only emergency departments, and EMS response times. This is about supporting patient movement through the [emergency department] into acute care beds and ultimately to discharge from hospital back into the community.”

According to the province, as part of the Health Care Action Plan they added 20 more ambulances to peak hours in Calgary and Edmonton.

Parliamentary secretary of EMS Reform, MLA RJ Sigurdson, said that the province was also providing a three-year exemption to ground ambulance regulations.

“To help ease staffing requirements, the exemption allows two emergency medical responders to respond to and transport patients without the need for a higher level of paramedic when medically suitable, freeing other paramedics to respond to more urgent calls,” he said.

“An EMR can also join and advanced care and primary care paramedics to respond to urgent calls.”

Response debated by official opposition

Alberta NDP Critic for Health, David Shepherd, called the province’s update on EMS hasty, citing alleged years of damage done prior by the government to EMS service in the province.

“After four years under the UCP, Albertans continue to wait longer than ever for ambulances to arrive,” Shepherd said.

“Paramedics remain exhausted, burnt-out, and under excruciating pressure. Crews are still frequently stuck at overwhelmed emergency rooms, unable to transfer their patients for hours on end when they should be home with their families.”

The Health Services Association of Alberta, which represents paramedics in the province, previously criticized the government’s plans to reform EMS, and the methods used to measure improvements.

Among those was a call to measure response times from “call to door,” release daily information on unfilled shifts and dropped ambulances, and release evidence that the conditions were improving. Currently, the province measures the time from when calls are received by a 9-1-1 centre, to the time the first ambulance arrives at a scene.

On the province’s 90-day update, they said that the touted improvements were not good enough.

“We should report the complete time it is taking for paramedics to respond,” said HSAA President, Mike Parker.

“17 minutes is not an improvement. Imagine doing CPR or being helpless to a loved one in pain for 17 minutes.”