EDMONTON – Alberta will top $20 billion in healthcare spending for the first time this fiscal year, as the NDP government moves ahead with major investments in cancer care, information technology and long-term care.
The entire capital budget to build health infrastructure is nearly $3.5 billion over the next five years, though more than a third of it will be eaten up by construction of the new Calgary Cancer Centre. A final estimate for that project has yet to be announced, with construction not ready to start until 2017 or 2018.
No new funding was announced for major health projects in Edmonton, though Health Minister Sarah Hoffman (pictured) noted there is money to continue planning redevelopments of the Misericordia and Royal Alex hospitals, and potentially a new medical lab facility.
As well, $400 million will go toward creating a new “clinical information system” that will help create a single health record for patients that can be accessed throughout the health network. The system is expected to be rolled out first at University Hospital, and then expand to other facilities across the province.
“I came to Alberta in 1997 and I’ve been waiting two decades for this,” Dr. Robert Hayward, chief medical information officer for AHS, told the Edmonton Journal. “I am so excited. It’s something many governments have been promising for many years and finally we are seeing the light we need.”
Dr. Hayward noted the system used in Edmonton is 30 years old and in need of a major update. The $400 million allotted in the budget will enable Alberta Health Services to issue an RFP for a new and far-ranging solution, one that integrates hospitals, primary care clinicians and other healthcare professionals.
According to the Journal, there are 1,300 different healthcare I.T. systems operating across the province, most of them unconnected. A new system would replace many of these systems and tie others together.
Though critics blasted the government for failing to do more to rein in the province’s biggest area of expense, hospitals, Hoffman defended her approach of planned, cautious moves to slow the growth of spending.
“We are not going to be looking at moving wrecking balls through essential hospitals, like we saw in the 1990s. That certainly didn’t benefit us and it left us with a big backlog,” Hoffman said.
“If we had a freeze, we would be looking at having to lay off staff. And we need to reduce wait times, and if you cut access for MRIs, CT scans and cancer surgeries, it would do the opposite.”
The health budget, announced earlier this month, largely followed the plan the NDP government laid out last fall with its first budget. As expected, overall health expenditures are budgeted to rise this year by about $507 million, or three percent, from projected spending in 2015-16.
In subsequent years, the government plans to have annual increases of around two percent, well below the average six-percent hikes seen under the Progressive Conservatives.
Alberta Health Services receives the bulk of the funding, $14.3 billion, which includes a $175-million increase this year.
Hoffman has said her government’s efforts to “bend the cost curve” on health spending over time is particularly focused on three big expenses: doctors, hospitals and drugs.
With physicians, the government and the Alberta Medical Association have begun negotiations on controlling the rise in doctors’ pay, including reforms to change how doctors are compensated.
The budget makes a start in that direction with a $63-million increase this year in physician pay, much lower than recent history. Hoffman said the government is also looking at making better use of other health services and professionals such as nurse practitioners, and HealthLink.
As for reducing hospital use, one of the government’s main approaches is to add new continuing care units. The budget features $165 million over the next two years to help build 25 projects announced last fall that are expected to add 2,000 new long-term care and dementia spaces. An additional $100 million in each of 2018 and 2019 have been earmarked for future continuing care projects.