Alberta union leader pledges to fight the privatisation of healthcare!

United Nurses of Alberta demonstrate against cuts

‘A system that was already in chaos is going to (experience) a lot more chaos,’ United Nurses of Alberta President Heather Smith warned on Tuesday as she pledged to fight against the privatisation of healthcare and thousands of her members’ jobs.

Major health-care unions in Canada are fighting the Alberta government’s plan to transfer thousands of health-care staff across the province to a new mental health and addictions agency.

By early July, the province intends to move delivery of these services, currently under the health ministry, to a new organisation called Recovery Alberta, which will be overseen by the Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction.

It’s the first of a number of ‘shakeups’ to come as the provincial government follows through on its sweeping health ‘reform’ plans.

The United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) warns the transition, which will impact 3,200 of its members – in settings ranging from hospitals and psychiatric facilities to provincial correctional centres and residential treatment facilities – violates its collective agreement.

The union has filed an unfair labour practice complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board on Monday, alleging Alberta Health Services (AHS) failed to negotiate in good faith.

It claims AHS disregarded nurses’ negotiated rights and the transfer was announced without consulting or sharing information with the union.

The UNA, which is in the midst of bargaining, said that under a longstanding letter of understanding, members can choose whether to move to a new employer when there is a transfer of services or remain with AHS and move into a vacancy or displace someone with less seniority.

‘We weren’t consulted in terms of the announcement last week, and to be honest, it came as quite a shock to us,’ said David Harrigan, director of labour relations with UNA.

‘They’re already overworked and feeling unappreciated, and if they hear that the government’s just going to run roughshod over their collective agreement rights, it’s going to make it hard to retain. It’s going to make it very difficult to recruit.’

Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), said his union – which is also involved – wasn’t consulted prior to last week’s announcement either, and he has been unable to get his questions answered.

According to Parker, approximately 3,200 HSAA members, including addictions counsellors, psychologists and mental health therapists, are impacted by the transition.

‘We continue to work with the health ministry, with other unions, trying to figure out what’s happening, and at the moment I don’t have any answers,’ he said.

According to Parker, the news is difficult to take for staff who are dealing with the opioid crisis.

‘They’re trying to do their job and save lives and hold the system together, and the ideology of just another change is just devastating to them.’

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) has similar concerns.

According to Sandra Azocar, AUPE vice-president, 3,500 members will be moved to the new agency, including licensed practical nurses and health-care aides, as well as general support staff.

Sandra Azocar, vice-president of the AUPE, says the rush to make changes doesn’t inspire confidence.

‘The government is rushing ahead so fast with the changes to the way that care is provided that we are unsure. And that doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence,’ said Azocar.

‘A system that was already in chaos is going to (experience) a lot more chaos.’

Jennifer Jackson, a registered nurse and assistant professor in the nursing faculty at the University of Calgary, is worried about the implications for the next steps of the government’s health-care overhaul.

It includes the creation of three additional organisations to oversee delivery of acute care, primary care and continuing care.

‘What we’re seeing now is the first indication that this specific transition … is not well planned, and that casts doubt to me across the whole system,’ she said.

‘Health-care systems are incredibly complex. And the idea that we can just cut and slice and move people around and it’s effortless is misguided at best.’

The Alberta government has deliberately written the Continuing Care Act and its regulations to make it easier for private, for-profit operators to increase fees and cut standards of care, says the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE).

‘At first we thought this was just about removing the minimum hours of care from regulations, but we took a deeper dive and found that the government has also removed continuing-care fees from regulations,’ says Sandra Azocar, vice-president of AUPE, Western Canada’s largest union, representing 95,000 workers.

‘This is dangerous and it is deliberate,’ she says. ‘By removing these items from regulations, the government is making it easier for them to be changed away from the public spotlight.’

The changes in the Continuing Care Act, which came into effect on April 1, will encourage private operators to pressure the government to increase fees and cut minimum hours of care – and the government will be happy to oblige.

‘Elderly and vulnerable Albertans will see the quality of care fall while their costs rise. Front-line workers will once again be asked to do more with less,’ says Azocar.

‘We believe this is being done for two reasons,’ she says. ‘One is to help private operators increase revenue and cut costs at existing facilities. The other is to make public care facilities operated by CapitalCare and Carewest more attractive for buyers.’

CapitalCare operates 14 public facilities in Edmonton and Carewest operates 14 facilities in Calgary.

The government is dismantling Alberta Health Services (AHS), splitting it into four separate agencies, one of which will be continuing care. This is budgeted to cost $85 million. The continuing-care unit is scheduled to come on stream in the fall.

‘We know that this government is obsessed with giving away good public health-care services to their corporate friends,’ says Azocar.

‘Despite the costly failure of the attempt to privatise laboratory operations, despite the recent news that private surgeries have led to longer wait times and despite problems with privatised hospital laundry, this government is determined to ignore the evidence. Next on the block will be continuing care.’