AHS closes hospital beds at Lacombe Hospital

LACOMBE— On July 9 Alberta Health Services (AHS) closed 12 more hospital beds, including palliative care and acute care beds, at Lacombe’s sole hospital, after failing to fill vacancies that have run frontline healthcare staff at the facility ragged.

Across the province, healthcare services in small towns and cities are buckling under pandemic pressure made worse by AHS’s failures to give nursing care and general support services (GSS) staff the resources they need. Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) Vice-President Bonnie Gostola says, “these problems started well before the coronavirus, but the pandemic exacerbated them.”

At least 12 AHS hospitals and care centres have been forced to reduce services because of staffing crises. Most of the closures are concentrated in rural Alberta, but the health authority also closed beds at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton. AUPE members at the Lacombe Hospital and Care Centre say they’ve been burning out for years because critical shifts remain empty, and more tasks are falling on fewer shoulders. Staff now fear even fewer Albertans will seek work in healthcare since AHS slapped registered nurses with a 3 per cent wage rollback proposal on July 6 – a sign of potential salary cuts for LPNs, Healthcare Aides (HCAs) and GSS members.

“AHS wonders why it can’t attract and retain talent – this is why,” says Gostola. “They have no respect for their employees, who’ve poured heart and soul into this work over the past 15 months. Our members are endlessly compassionate, but they are not bottomless vessels. They’re drained. Some haven’t seen a raise in years, and they need this government to pour into them for a change.”

Gostola says that between the UCP’s plans to layoff 11,000 healthcare workers and AHS’s poor behaviour at the bargaining table, the province’s attack on healthcare workers has been relentless.

“Why would a parent with kids to feed apply for a cleaning position with AHS today, when they’re just going to get a pink slip tomorrow?” She says. “I hear from members all the time – we’re talking people with 20 year’s experience – who are thinking of quitting entirely because they have no other choice. That’s how bad it is.”

These decisions are heartbreaking for long-time employees, who not only fear for their job security, but also the wellness of their neighbours. In small communities like Lacombe, where health services are limited, closing a whole unit means residents might have to travel to other towns for basic care.

“And who knows if nearby towns or cities will have the capacity to treat them,” adds Gostola, who notes that the unit closure in Lacombe is particularly heartbreaking because of the community’s investment in the hospital. “The municipality partially funded those palliative care rooms. They made that compassionate care possible. So, to see the bosses in the big cities sink it, with no consideration for the impact it will have on Lacombe, is really demoralizing. But our members are determined to push back, for each other and for patients.”