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National wait list watchdog slams Alberta

EDMONTON - A national group of doctors is giving Alberta a failing grade on reporting health wait lists — but the province says the mark is unfair.

EDMONTON - A national group of doctors is giving Alberta a failing grade on reporting health wait lists — but the province says the mark is unfair.

The Wait Time Alliance says Alberta has failed to send in its wait times this year as promised and is the only province to renege on a deal to set and guarantee wait times for one procedure in return for $62 million in federal funding.

"It's extremely disappointing and very frustrating," Dr. Lorne Bellan, co-chair of the Wait Time Alliance, said in an interview from Winnipeg.

"It also makes me feel frustrated on behalf of the citizens of Alberta. This whole thing is for citizens' benefit. Other provinces took the money and agreed to report to their own citizens on what they were doing.

"Alberta is just not letting people know what it's actually doing."

The Wait Time Alliance is composed of members from 14 national health organizations, including the Canadian Medical Association.

It has reported and compared wait times among the provinces for the last five years. Its work stems from a federal-provincial accord signed in 2004 by health ministers to address a range of health issues, including wait times.

The federal government has allocated $5.5 billion to the provinces to help reduce wait times. There was also $612 million set aside for provinces and territories to set reasonable guaranteed wait times in one area and meet that target by March 31, 2010.

Alberta Health spokesman Howard May says the province received its share — $62 million — and is using now it to cap wait limits for cancer treatments at eight weeks.

"We agreed (with the federal government) we would not implement a guarantee per se, but a target for maximum acceptable wait times, which is another way of saying a benchmark," May said in an interview.

The Alberta benchmark is four weeks maximum for a patient to see an oncologist and another four weeks maximum for radiation therapy to begin.

"We're living up to the terms of the memorandum of understanding," said May.

Bellan said Alberta is also not meeting its promise under the accord to publicly post wait list data. Alberta was a regular contributor in previous years and was average to above average in wait times compared with other provinces, he added.

That changed this year, he said, when the alliance couldn't find the data online and then asked the minister for it in a letter.

"We got radio silence from Alberta," said Bellan. "I think there was a response at one point saying, 'Exciting things are happening in Alberta. Just keep looking.' But there was no data."

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky told the legislature that the wait list site developed "computer difficulties" a year ago and had to be taken down, but that officials have been told to get it up and running as soon as possible.

"It's not a question of us wanting to or not wanting to. That site is simply not available," Zwozdesky told the legislature Tuesday.

He said the Health Wait Alliance can access the data through Alberta Health Services, the health department's delivery arm.

Long wait times are a hot issue in Alberta.

Zwozdesky and his department have come under harsh criticism for long emergency room wait times since the release two weeks ago of a letter from the head of emergency services for the Alberta Medical Association.

In it, Dr. Paul Parks said that bed shortages and long wait times — reported to be up to 20 hours in some hospitals — have put the system on the verge of "potential catastrophic collapse."

The letter included front-line horror stories: a female patient getting a pelvic exam in a public waiting room, patients with chest pains giving up and going home without being seen, a heart attack patient dying awaiting treatment.

The province is now taking steps to alleviate the pressure by focusing on improved assessment times and trying to free up beds in other facilities. Zwozdesky has promised to post emergency wait times publicly.

The government has also introduced new legislation that will give patients a health charter to guarantee patients timely care, though critics point out those who feel their charter rights are ignored have no recourse to the courts or to an outside body.

"This is a minister who loves to have meetings, who loves to make promises, but they're struggling mightily to deliver on them," said Alberta Liberal Health critic Kevin Taft.

"They're happy to take money from the federal government, but they're quick to hide behind the tools of accountability."

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