St. Albert MLA Ken Allred broke ranks with his Tory party Wednesday, saying he was in favour of an amendment to the Health Act put forward by independent MLA Raj Sherman that would legislate emergency room wait times across the province.
MLAs pulled an all-night session in the legislature on Wednesday to debate the amendment.
“There is no question in my mind that we're in a crisis situation. It's been brewing for many, many months. I'm certainly inclined to support this amendment because we need some accountability in the system. This amendment, Mr. Chair, may not be perfect, but I think it's a good first step,” Allred told the legislature Wednesday.
Specifically, the amendment calls for maximum emergency room wait times of six hours for 95 per cent of standard patients and four hours for 95 per cent of more seriously ill or injured patients. Those numbers stem from a 2007 position paper from the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians.
Allred said he has raised concerns about problems in emergency rooms with Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky in the past, specifically the number of long-term care patients blocking acute care beds.
“Now we’re hearing the same problem with the ambulance system; all the ambulances are backed up at the emergency rooms because the paramedics cannot release their patients until they’ve been accepted into the hospital,” Allred told the Gazette yesterday.
Despite numerous promises and a generous five-year funding plan for Alberta Health Services, Allred said problems remain.
“What’s the reason? Why are we not getting the action? We really need some accountability in the system,” he said.
Although he said he was inclined to support Sherman’s amendment, Allred said he does have some concerns with it, specifically a set of guiding principles stating that “no unnecessary deaths, no unnecessary harm to patients, no unnecessary delays in care and no unnecessary waste in resources should occur.”
“That’s a little fuzzy language,” he said.
And whereas the amendment references emergency room standards established by the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, Allred suggested looking at standards such as those set by the Alberta Health Council, which might be more appropriate for the province.
“They need to be realistic but very aggressive targets,” he said.
“I am also not convinced that we should only be setting standards for emergency. We need to look at the whole system to set standards.”
On Wednesday, Zwozdesky said this was one of the reasons why he could not support the amendment.
“You would have to put all aspects of health care under that microscope because then others would come in and say, ‘Well, what about legislating wait times for cancer care, for access for kidney cancer, for brain cancer, for lung cancer?’ And the list goes on.
“It's just not practical because as new improvements are made, what are you going to do? Bring that act in here every few months for changing, for updating, go through the whole rigmarole of yet another debate?”
Zwozdesky said ER wait times should instead be managed through performance measures. He also had concerns that there could be potential legal repercussions if emergency room wait times were legislated.
But Allred disagreed.
“The section it’s intended to amend talks about guiding principles and this talks about guiding principles. Yes, it is a law. Bill 17, if it is passed, will become a law, there is no question about it but it’s not a mandatory requirement, it’s a guiding principle,” he said.
All three opposition parties supported Sherman’s amendment.
Allred said he was not concerned with any potential backlash stemming from his decision to support the amendment.
“I think a few jaws dropped in the house when I supported it but I think I’ve been fairly rational in my approach,” he said.
“I’ve sort of thrown the ball back in the court of the minster saying ‘Look, we need to come in with an amendment of this nature, but you draft it the way you would like to see it and get rid of some of these words and, if that’s the case, I would support that.’ But until that happens, I’m inclined to support this.”