The cost of refocusing what are now categorized in the budget at “Health Care Entities (formerly Alberta Health Services) is being pegged at $85 million over two years, including $15 million in 2023-2024, and $70 million in 2024-2025

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Alberta’s 2024 budget lays out for the first time the cost of dismantling Alberta Health Services (AHS).

The cost of refocusing what are now categorized in the budget at “Health Care Entities (formerly Alberta Health Services) is being pegged at $85 million over two years, including $15 million in 2023-2024, and $70 million in 2024-2025.

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The numbers come from the cost of creating AHS back in 2008, adjusted for inflation, labour relations costs, staffing, public engagement, advertising and contractor support.

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“We’re refocusing the healthcare system so every Albertan has access when and where they need it,” said Finance Minister Nate Horner Thursday.

Budget 2024 would give health services across the province an operating budget of $26.2 billion, up $1.1 billion, or 4.4 per cent from the 2023-2024 forecast.

“We know health care is the top priority of Albertans. We’re targeting dollars to force specialized areas to drive improvement and find new, better ways to meet the needs of each patient,” Horner said.

Health education gets boost

In terms of increasing education in the health care field within Alberta, expansion initiatives include $10 million over three years to increase the number of mental health professional programs spaces at post-secondary institutions.

An additional $6.8 million over three years is expected to increase seats in the doctor of medicine programs at the University of Alberta and University of Calgary, including previously announced support in budget 2023.

The plan budgets for the creation of regional health professional training centers to improve access to physicians in rural and remote areas of the province with a $55.6 million investment over the next three years.

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“We’re also investing in a safe and secure Alberta by providing mental health, addiction and police supports so all Albertans feel secure and welcome,” Horner said.

Investment in primary care

A further $475 million is earmarked to support the continued implementation of the Modernizing Alberta’s Primary Health Care System, including $200 million over two years to improve access to family physicians, $10 million for primary health-care initiatives in indigenous communities, $15 million to “further develop a compensation model for nurse practitioners.”

The biggest ticket item is $300 million for Primary Care Networks to provide additional support for collaborative primary health-care services

“We want every Albertan to have their own family doctor or health care provider. So we’re investing $475 million to strengthen primary care,” Horner said. “We’re training more rural and indigenous family doctors and developing a new compensation model for nurse practitioners recruiting and retaining more physicians to underserved communities and helping them keep their medical clinics open.”

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Funding for seniors, women and children

Some $8 million will be allocated over two years to expand the Alberta Newborn Screening Program, with $10 million to support the development of a province-wide midwifery strategy, and $10 million over two years allocated to the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation Legacy Grant in Edmonton and $10 million to the Calgary Hospital Foundation, to support women’s health initiatives

Seniors have a share in $140 million per year over three years for the yet-to-be-signed Federal Bi-Lateral Aging with Dignity Agreement, which includes $70 million for long-term care initiatives and $70 million for home and community care initiatives.

The biggest ticket for seniors is $1 billion over three years to transform the continuing care system in response to the Facility-Based Continuing Care Review.

Another $2 billion per year for Drugs and Supplemental Health benefit programs, including $883 million for the Seniors Drug program that supports over 700,000 seniors, but no word yet on if this would include Premier Danielle Smith taking the province out of Pharmacare, or the effect that would have on what people would pay out of their own pockets for drugs.

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Addictions and mental health will see $1.55 billion total to continue building the Alberta Recovery Model “and ensure anyone suffering from the deadly disease of addiction or facing mental health challenges has an opportunity to pursue recovery,” Thursday’s budget reads.

Other budget items

Budget 2024 is expected to reduce wait times and improve access, with a goal of providing “world-class care.”

Some $3.6 billion over three years in capital funding to maintain or expand healthcare facilities throughout the province will include:

  • About $810 million to advance the redevelopment and expansion of the Red Deer Regional Hospital, including Ambulatory Services.
  • The South Edmonton hospital is off the radar for good, with the government having invested almost $70 million in the planning and execution so far.
  • There will be $35 million to purchase new Emergency Medical Services vehicles and ambulances, upgrade the existing fleet, and acquire additional equipment.
  • The budget allots $25 million in additional funding for the Beaverlodge Municipal Hospital replacement project to support better access to health care for area residents, and $20 million over the next three years, including $17 million in new funding, to continue planning for a standalone Stollery Children’s Hospital—which would in turn lead to another 200 adult beds opening up.
  • Some $313 million for the Alberta Surgical Initiative is expected to increase the number of surgical procedures performed in Alberta annually.
  • Health-care workers account for a chunk of the budget, with $126 million over three years for the Rural Physician Expansion Program to increase rural and Indigenous access to medical education and increase the number of family medicine and generalist physicians.

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Physician compensation

The $6.6-billion tag for physician compensation and development programs would include $129 million annually for recruitment and retention of physicians who practice full-time in underserved areas, $12 million increase for the existing Rural Remote Northern Program, $12 million annually to enhance physician support programs, $20 million per year to the Business Costs Program to enhance physician practice viability – based on 3,000 physicians, that would be about an average of $7,000 per practice.

The Alberta Medical Association’s plea for a new family physician pay model is not on the books per se, with the province continuing to rely heavily on the fee-for-service compensation system other western provinces have set aside in favour of more complex equations that take into consideration panels or rosters of patients, complexity of service, spiralling expenses due to inflation, and longitudinal care.

Another $200 million over two years will be expected to improve access to family physicians and primary health care, and a $26 million capital funding over three years for the University of Lethbridge Rural Medical Teaching School would provide more opportunities to train doctors in smaller communities.

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