Following an Aug. 24 meeting with Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping attended by representatives from the Stettler and District Ambulance Association, the County of Stettler council renewed its call for advocacy during their Sept. 14 meeting.
Stettler District Ambulance Association has operated in the region since 1972. Even when the province took over responsibility for ambulances at the end of the 2000s, the association, with the municipalities backing, was able to get a contract with Alberta Health Services (AHS) and remain one of the few contracted operators left standing.
According to an info-sheet supplied with the Sept. 14 agenda package, the current five-year contract was entered into with AHS in 2012, with the health authority exercising their option to extend the contract another four years in 2017.
Then COVID-19 hit. The four-year contract was extended by an additional year with an end date of Aug. 31, 2022.
The service, which supplies two Advanced Life Support (ALS) ambulances and a Paramedic Response Unit (PRU), operates out of a base near Stettler’s hospital providing coverage for around 12,000 people in an area of 1,600 square miles with around 2,700 kilometers of road.
“I think its important for people to know what we would be losing if we lose what we have here,” said Coun. Les Stulberg.
Going into contract negotiations earlier in the summer, AHS insisted on another contract extension, despite “the service dipping into deficit” for years, according to the information sheet.
Challenges to the service include a 43 per cent increase in 911 responses and 112 per cent increase in inter-facility transfers. With expenses increasing the way they have, in order for the service to maintain current levels the contract they would need to see a budgetary increase of 15 per cent, an increase that was, according to the info sheet, rejected by AHS without explanation.
Further, Stettler District Ambulance Association has been earmarked for the “hours of work” project, an initiative which would move the service away from its current core/flex model to scheduled 12-hour shifts for half the staff.
According to the info-sheet, moving to the 12-hour shifts would necessitate a further 32 per cent increase in addition to the 15 per cent.
Further, the PRU, which allows for a paramedic to respond when both ambulances are called away, is dispatched by AHS, but not funded.
“AHS refuses to pay a single red penny for it, but they will dispatch it out,” said Coun. Justin Stevens.
“The hypocrisy of that is outstanding.”
A final contract note; while the association was originally paid for inter-facility transfers, they are now no longer chargeable to AHS, yet due to their significant increase “lead to growing overtime and fatigue management,” according to the info sheet.
Municipal partners have been helping the ambulance service any way they can. Rent has been reduced, mechanical work has been offered through the county at a discounted rate. Employee benefits have been bundled with the municipality to make for better purchasing. A variety of fundraising has been done as well.
The association signed a three-month contract extension over the summer while the board and AHS iron out a —hopefully —beneficial contract for both sides, but the clock is ticking.
The contract expires Dec. 1.
“I was there 11 years ago when we drew up the agreement, and we haven’t had a raise,” said Coun. Dave Grover.
“No one is going to stay here if we don’t have health services.”
Reeve Clarke summed up the discussion succinctly.
“We want to let Minister Copping know that we aren’t done fighting,” said Clarke.