By Nikki Jamieson
Westwind Weekly News
More than $2 billion in additional funding has been allocated for health and COVID-19 in the 2021 provincial budget.
In a media conference March 2, Premier Jason Kenney said if the budget passes, which was introduced late last month, the over all health care budget will see an increase in $900 million, in addition to the one-time funding of $1.25 billion the government has set aside, as a COVID-19 contingency fund to address the pandemic’s health care costs.
“Albertans have told us their number one priority is fighting COVID-19, and Alberta’s government has responded with the single, largest ever health care investment for one year in Alberta’s history. That’s on top of the $2 billion in emergency pandemic spending last year,” said Kenney.
“Since day one, we’ve said we’ll spend whatever is necessary to ensure the health system has the resources it needs, to care for and to protect Albertans, especially the vulnerable. Budget 2021 follows through on that commitment.”
The $1.25 billion in additional COVID funding will help support front-line workers and pandemic response initiatives, such as vaccination roll-out, which is going in a phased approach. Health Minister Tyler Shandro says they are doing about 50,000 doses a week, in-line with the current schedule of deliveries through March, and are putting plans in place to ramp that up to 250,000 doses a week by the end of March, once they get the supply. The $1.25 billion will also help ease pressure on the province’s health care system, testing, contract tracing, PPE, address the surgical backlog that has occurred as a result of the pandemic and the continuing care system.
“We made a promise the response to COVID would not be constrained by the budget, that any resources the system needed or AHS needed would be there, and would be there for patients, there for Albertans,” said Shandro.
“Budget 2021 ensures our health system has the resources it needs to continue to provide quality public health care — while keeping Albertans safe and keeping Albertans healthy throughout the pandemic.”
“AHS is in the midst of rolling out probably one of the most ambitious vaccination programs our province has ever seen. We are learning and improving, as we go,” said Dr. Verna Yiu, president and CEO of Alberta Health Services.
“We are honoured to be playing such a critical role in delivering hope to Albertans, as they become eligible and sign-up for a vaccination appointment.”
Finance Minister Travis Toews said the $1.25 billion will be available as needed, as in the past year we’ve seen the pandemic’s impacts are “volatile and ever-changing,” making it difficult to predict exact needs and costs.
With the $900 million increase, a total of $23 billion will be spent on health care, up four per cent from the previous year.
This includes $5.4 billion for physician compensation and development; $3.5 billion combined for community care, continuing care and home care programs; $1.9 billion for drugs and supplemental health benefit programs, an increase of almost $200 million to help address higher drug costs and increased program enrolment; $140 million over four years to increase access to mental health and addiction services, add more than 4,000 new publicly-funded treatment spaces for Albertans and create a recovery-oriented system of care; and $34 million for children’s health supports to expand mental health and rehabilitation services for children and youth.
“Budget 2021 gives the health care system the resources we need to finish this fight, as well as help us gain ground once we are able to focus completely on recovery,” said Yiu.
“This budget will ensure our frontline staff will continue to be protected, as they care for our sick and most vulnerable Albertans. The pandemic has increased the need for mental health and additional services, and I’m heartened to see the strategic additional investment increases access to these services for Albertans.”
While the provincial government works to ensure a balance in investing in health care to protect lives while protecting livelihoods to prepare for recovery once mass immunization is complete, Kenney citicized the federal government’s ability to get vaccines, saying “Only standing between us and that mass immunization and greater freedom, and getting back to normal, is the federal government getting us doses.”
“The only standing between us and that mass immunization and greater freedom, and getting back to normal, is the federal government getting us doses so we can innoculate Albertans with (them),” said Kenney.
Over the next three years, the province will invest $3.4 billion in key health capital projects, such as expanding hospitals and modernizing the health care system.
Additionally, with last month’s announcement of a tentative agreement between the government and the Alberta Medical Association, Kenney was hopeful they can move forward in a “renewed partnership” to help get through COVID-19.
While he acknowledged there is a lot more work to do, Kenney said the next year was “key” in determining how “we’ll emerge.”