The provincial government’s halfhearted climbdown this afternoon from its plans to close 246 beds at Alberta Hospital Edmonton represents a partial victory for defenders of effective public mental health services and a partial defeat for the health-care privatizers in the government of Premier Ed Stelmach.
But no one should imagine for a moment that this fight is over or that the world-class mental health services provided by Alberta Hospital Edmonton are safe.
The relentless assault on public health care in all its forms will likely soon resume, on this and other fronts, and the supposed benefits of the “community-care” model of (not) delivering mental health services to the people who need them will continue to be a focus of those who would undermine our public health care system.
Still, the thousands of Albertans who spoke up on behalf of Alberta Hospital, its patients and its dedicated staff, who wrote letters to editors and politicians, and who attended town hall meetings and public rallies should be very proud of what they have achieved, even if the respite is likely only to be temporary.
It was not so many weeks ago, remember, that the Stelmach government and its proxies in Alberta Health Services were vowing that its plan to move all but forensic patients to “community settings” would go ahead no matter what the police, the unions, the psychiatrists, the families of the mentally ill or the public said or thought.
Today, with a new health minister directing AHS, the government backed away from half that pledge, stating in a news release that “AHS will withdraw proposals to transfer 146 beds from the acute psychiatry and rehabilitation psychiatry programs at Alberta Hospital Edmonton to other facilities.”
While the government said it was taking the advice of its so-called “Implementation Team,” a committee set up by the premier to cool down a firestorm of public anger that the plan to close so may beds and services at Alberta Hospital sparked in August, the reality is clear it was sustained public pressure that brought about this change.
“Implementation Team” may have stated the original purpose of the committee just a little too clearly, so the AHS/Alberta government news release weirdly dubbed it “the I-Team,” a name that conjured up memories of Mr. T. The I-Team, the release said, recommended that AHS push ahead with plans to close geriatric services at Alberta Hospital and move them to a site adjacent to Misericordia Hospital, across the street from West Edmonton Mall.
This move will cost a lot – AHS estimates a price tag of $3 to $5 million for renovations alone, plus the cost and disruption of the move itself. It will also result in the loss of 150 long-term care beds, which presumably will have to be built somewhere else for a sum that can only be estimated – say, $43.4 million, the cost of the building being taken over. This is strange behaviour for an organization that constantly pleads extreme poverty.
Moreover, it is hard to imagine the move will achieve much in terms of the quality or variety of clinical services provided, although it may have long-term ideological advantages to the AHS privatization agenda in that it will spin off operation of this program to Covenant Health, owned by the Roman Catholic Church instead of the provincial government.
At a crowded news conference at the AHS executive offices in Edmonton today, “I-Team” Chair Fred Horne, ever the good sport despite having not been entrusted with a cabinet post in Premier Stelmach’s Feb. 13 shuffle, repeatedly lauded the work of the geriatric program’s staff at AHS. This did raise an interesting question: “If things are so great, how come they’re being fixed?”
(One can look to the Proverbs of Solomon, a work that should be familiar to the directors of Covenant Health, for one possible answer: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” Having stirred up a hornet’s nest of public fury, the government had to go ahead and do something just to prove it’s still in charge!)
Reading between the lines of today’s AHS press release and the elusive comments of various officials at the news conference, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that closing Alberta Hospital remains on the government’s back burner.
The various committee members, MLAs and AHS officials at the table – plus the disembodied voice of AHS supremo Stephen Duckett commentating telephonically from afar – skated assiduously around the questions of a CBC reporter who asked repeatedly, with diminishing patience, if the AHE redevelopment plan had any future now that those 146 beds will remain open.
Readers who have been following this story will recall that on Aug. 14, when AHS sprang its mental-health-bed-closing plan on unsuspecting Albertans, the health care “superboard” stated in a news release that a decision had been made “not to proceed with the redevelopment of the Alberta Hospital Edmonton site,” which until then had been on a list of planned government projects.
The many Albertans who protested against last summer’s disturbing announcement should assume that Alberta Hospital Edmonton and its services are not truly safe until the province has recommitted itself to redeveloping the site as a psychiatric hospital.
Until then, keep you powder dry!