EDMONTON - Paramedics in Alberta say patients are waiting so long for urgent care in overcrowded hospitals that they are now calling the 911 emergency line while sitting in the emergency ward.

But Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky says help is on the way, with more beds being opened daily and wait times continuing to come down.

Both announcements came Wednesday as hospital wait times and the government's handling of the health file continued to dominate the fall sitting of the legislature.

“Our hospital ERs are already bursting at the seams,” said Elisabeth Ballermann, head of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents paramedics.

“The situation has gotten so out of hand, we now have patients calling 911 from the ER.

"If something catastrophic were to happen, I can’t say I’m confident that Alberta Health Services has a plan in place to handle the excess patient loads."

Ballermann made the comments at a news conference with Dr. Layton Burkart, an executive member of the Alberta Medical Association’s section of emergency medicine.

Burkart said long waits for patient care at hospitals — reported in some cases to be 20 hours — is reducing the effectiveness of paramedics, who must wait to hand off patients needing care.

"As an Edmonton emergency physician working at two city hospitals, I can certainly say that emergency department over-crowding and access block are a huge issue,” said Burkart.

“It is common to have five-plus EMS units and their medics tied up for hours, while they wait for an emergency department stretcher to be freed up so that they can download their patient and get back on the streets to do the job they are supposed to be doing — saving the lives of Albertans."

The comments come on the heels of a letter — which was leaked to the media two weeks ago — from Dr. Paul Parks, head of emergency care for the AMA, to the government.

In it, Parks said the system is approaching "potential catastrophic collapse" due to overcrowding.

Zwozdesky said he has since taken action to free up and add more acute care beds to ease the bottleneck on emergency wards.

"Just in the last few weeks and going forward for the next few weeks, more than 71 new beds will be opened in acute care hospitals in Edmonton and more than 70 beds will be opened or have already been opened within the same time frame in Calgary," Zwozdesky told the legislature.

The government has been working to add 1,300 continuing care spaces in Alberta to take some strain off of acute care hospitals. Alberta Health is also working to move patients through the systems more quickly. Basic-care patients are to be in and out of the emergency department within four hours.

Rob Anderson of the opposition Wildrose Alliance said more immediate steps must be taken to clear the backlog, such as giving an on site supervisor the ability to override health regulations to clear up crisis situations.

"(We have) patients dying in hallways waiting for care, pregnant women having their cervix examined in open triage (areas), people puking up blood in the emergency room for seven hours before even getting assessed, people calling 911 from the emergency room, 54 per cent longer waits in just one year," Anderson said during question period.

"And this minister is going to stand there and defend his precious AHS regulations?"

"It's a very complex area," Zwozdesky replied. "We're definitely serious about this. That's why we've sped up things."