AHS bid to save millions denied
NDP scuttles plan to privatize laundry service
Alberta Health Services’ plan to avoid multimillion-dollar upgrades to its laundry facilities by outsourcing the service to a private company were undone late last year by the NDP government, Postmedia has learned.
Documents obtained through an access to information request show AHS executives grew concerned in recent years about the decaying state of their linen and laundry sites around the province — facilities that supply clean bed sheets, gowns and surgical clothing at top sanitary standards.
Estimated costs to build sufficient new facilities have ranged from $54 million to $200 million, an expense the executives decided was prohibitive at a time when funding was needed for more direct clinical care areas, the documents show.
“AHS has reached a critical point where the only viable option for sustaining linen services that are core to patient care is to work with our existing linen contract provider and transition AHS facilities to them as effectively as possible,” says a briefing note from June last year.
That provider, K-Bro Linen Systems, has been used for years by AHS to provide medical linen in the Calgary and Edmonton regions, and the health authority planned to expand the contract to include the rest of the province. The executives noted other health regions, including some in Saskatchewan, B.C., Ontario and Quebec, had gone the outsourcing route.
But Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said she personally intervened late last year, telling AHS to look at other options since the strategy ran afoul of NDP policy to prevent further privatization of health services.
The plan would have led to the elimination of 130 to 140 full-time equivalent jobs at AHS.
“If you want to change the status quo, you should be able to present a business case, and I asked for evidence … not unlike other decisions I have put on hold or cancelled,” Hoffman said in an interview Tuesday.
“It lacks understanding of the current government that we want to make sure we consider a variety of options and that was one of the reasons I asked them to stop with the privatization agenda on this.”
Hoffman’s stance was similar to her controversial decision late last year to abruptly cancel an AHS plan to outsource all medical testing in the Edmonton region to a private company.
Such moves were cited by former AHS CEO Vickie Kaminski as examples of NDP micromanagement and ideological decision-making that led, in part, to her resignation earlier this year.
Hoffman declined to provide any details on her discussions with Kaminski, but said new AHS CEO Verna Yiu has been “very excited” to look at alternatives.
She said the previous Progressive Conservative government had basically forced AHS into privatizing linen by refusing to provide capital funding for anything considered a support service.
She suggested her government is willing to put money into such areas, but it is still unclear how those projects will stack up against competing demands for new hospitals, care facilities and a medical testing lab.
“Pretending laundry isn’t a critical part of patient care, I don’t buy that,” Hoffman said.
Outside of Calgary and Edmonton, linen services are currently provided by AHS in a kind of “hub and spoke” model. While a number of rural hospitals and care centres process much of their own linen, the extra loads get sent to six hub sites: Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Red Deer, Ponoka, Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray.
A large number of these laundries, big and small, have experienced problems in recent years, the documents show.
Medicine Hat has been one of the most troublesome facilities, with a 4½-month shutdown of its old ironing system, a sewer line collapse, daily power supply issues and a roof leak that destroyed the electronics of the cart wash system.
The site has been only partially restored after these incidents, forcing Medicine Hat to send much of its linen to Lethbridge.
As well, there are worries space constraints at the Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray facilities will make it difficult to take on additional work, while a number of smaller sites need to replace old equipment that requires frequent repairs from AHS technicians.
In the documents, AHS warns these problems present a safety hazard to workers and also threaten the health authority’s ability to consistently provide linen that meets standards for infection prevention.
The linen services department posted a disabling injury rate of 12.06 as of January this year, well above the AHS average rate of 3.01.
Though the documents declare AHS to be at a “critical point,” executive Mauro Chies tried to downplay the concern.
“I don’t think we are at critical threshold point right now, but it is on our radar,” said Chies, vice-president of clinical support services.
AHS is looking at a number of infrastructure options, with a decision expected late this year, Chies said. One of those options is a system of four hubs that would likely be located in Lethbridge, Grande Prairie, Ponoka and one north central community, such as Athabasca.
He suggested the construction bill could come in well below estimates quoted in the documents, because AHS is looking at using older warehouse sites already owned by the government, if possible.
The new sites would likely include a high level of automation, which could reduce staffing needs about 50 per cent.