Critics predict increasing backlog in ERs
New figures from the province's health authority show the wait for nursing home beds has worsened this year despite the fact Alberta Health Services has increased the number of long-term care spaces.
While a document that AHS provided to the Herald this week laid out a 150-bed reduction in 2012, an official said Thursday they have actually added 152 spaces across the province with round the clock nursing.
Roman Cooney, AHS' vice-president of communications, said the authority has opened 470 nursing home beds and closed 318 spaces so far this fiscal year.
"These beds are continually being refurbished to meet higher standards," Cooney said in an e-mail.
"In addition, over the next three years, we will open 150 additional net new long-term care beds."
Despite the increase in spaces this year, AHS figures show the queue of ailing seniors stuck in hospital or struggling at home while they waited for a nursing home bed grew by 14 per cent to 215 people in the first 10 months of this year.
The AHS figures show the situation is especially dire in Calgary where there were 95 people waiting in January for a vacancy.
Opposition parties predicted Thursday the backlog in Alberta's hospitals and ERs will worsen unless the government opens more nursing home beds to accommodate those seniors in the queue.
"It's complete incompetence," said Liberal health critic Dr. David Swann, "that is jeopardizing the health of our seniors and contributing to the crisis in our hospitals."
While AHS' plan would hold the number of nursing home beds at or slightly be-low 15,000 for the next three years, the authority is hoping to open 3,000 additional supportive living spaces over the same period which offer less nursing care, require residents to shoulder the cost of drugs and medical supplies, but which cost the health-care system less.
New Democrat seniors critic Rachel Notley said the plan aims to force sick seniors to shoulder a larger share of their health-related costs and live in facilities that may offer them an inadequate level of care.
"It's unfair, but it's also absolutely penny wise and pound foolish," Notley said.
"These patients will end up in much more expensive ER and acute care beds because they are the last resort."
Facility operators said the situation is worse than AHS' figures reveal because many of the 1,279 seniors on the waiting list, who the authority says are suited for supported living spaces, actually need to be in a nursing home.
"People are being placed there who don't belong and we're struggling to care for them with inappropriate and insufficient staff," said Bruce West, executive director of the Alberta Continuing Care Association.
"The government may have a vision of people aging in place and what supportive living can be but that's not what's available right now."
To deal with the current bed shortage, West said the province should designate at least 25 per cent of the new beds it is opening each year as long term care spaces.
"The health minister said he's flexible, that the new spaces coming on stream are built to offer a range of care," he said.
"Let's deal with the crisis now and add the RNs that are needed to ensure seniors get the prompt medical attention they need."
A recent health quality council report found up to eight per cent of the province's hospital beds were clogged with patients who should be in nursing homes or supportive living facilities.
Dr. Paul Parks, the past-president of the Alberta Medical Association's emergency medicine section, said the long waits in the province's ERs won't get shorter until the hospital backlog is cleared.
Parks said he has struggled to get reliable and consistent figures from AHS or the province about the number of nursing home beds in the province.
Health Minister Fred Horne said a few weeks ago that there were approximately 14,550 beds, while Seniors Minister George Vanderburg stated recently there were only 14,092 beds.
If AHS' 152 new beds are added to their stated capacity of 14,550 at March 31 last year, there should be 14,702 beds open today. Cooney did not reply to a request by e-mail to confirm that number.
"The bottom line is we have roughly the same number as we did two decades ago, but there's another 1.3 million people in the province and that population is aging fast," Parks said.
"I can't fathom how that is going to work."
Long-term care beds in Alberta
- People waiting for nursing home beds based on assessed medical need:
Calgary Herald, Fri Mar 23 2012
Byline: Matt McClure