Targeted funding and a plan to ensure the health-care system can respond to future pandemics while remaining sustainable is how the Alberta government is defining its health plan in the 2022 budget, released Thursday.
“The last few years have revealed a lack of health-care capacity, specifically ICU, surgical, and critical-care capacity,” Minister of Finance Travis Toews said in a news conference on Thursday.
On Feb. 24, the province released its 2022 budget with $22 billion slated for operating expenses in health care. This is an increase of $515 million from the 2021 budget forecast, and does not include costs related to COVID-19.
The fiscal plan states the implications of the pandemic on the health-care system are still to be determined, and health-care costs for the pandemic in the 2022 budget will be funded with COVID contingency cash.
“While I'm thankful COVID hospitalizations are coming down, there still remains uncertainty," Toews said Thursday.
“To ensure health has the resources required to deal with this uncertainty, Budget 2022 sets aside $750 million in a COVID contingency. This contingency provides flexible funding to address the surgical backlog and ensures the province can cover other evolving and uncertain pandemic costs,” said Toews.
Funds to address surgical backlogs will not go toward chartered surgical facilities, according to the province.
As for the previous year’s COVID-19 funding, health operating expenses for the pandemic were forecast at $1.4 billion for the fiscal year ending in March of 2022.
An additional $427 million was set to go toward items such as PPE, rapid test kits, and other testing supplies in the 2021 budget. This also included costs attributed to contact tracing, testing, support for continuing-care operators, staff and hospital utilization, vaccine deployment, and other incremental operating costs.
Toews said some of the funding in the 2022 budget includes money to attract more doctors to practice in rural and remote areas, along with allocating funds to emergency medical services to address capacity needs.
“These investments will improve health outcomes for Albertans and ensure the province is better prepared for any future system-wide health challenges,” Toews said Thursday.
The 2022 budget for Alberta Health Services (AHS) is projecting an increase of 3.3 per cent from the 2021-22 forecast. The province's 2022 budget has set aside nearly $15.1 billion for AHS operating costs.
The 2022 budget will address strategic priorities, which include the Alberta Surgical Initiative, and the CT and MRI Access Initiative.
Within the AHS budget for 2022, the province is set to invest $100 million per year for the next three years in targeted funding, which will permanently add health-care capacity. The funding will go towards adding new ICU beds under the Health System Capacity Action Plan.
The province's 2022 budget has also set aside $603 million for emergency medical services, an increase of $64 million from the previous year's budget. The funding is to address capacity needs and pressures in the system as a new EMS service plan is developed.
“Alberta’s government has launched a provincial emergency medical services advisory committee to provide immediate and long-term recommendations that will inform a new provincial EMS service plan, while AHS is rolling out a 10-point plan to quickly add EMS capacity,” according to the 2022 budget document.
Budget 2022 maintains the planned level of spending on physicians at $5.5 billion per year, states the budget document. That money includes grants to post-secondary institutions for academic medicine.
Alberta recently announced the rural education supplement and Integrated Doctor Experience, RESIDE, which is part of the 2022 budget, providing $6 million to 60 new family physicians over the next three years in the hopes of attracting physicians to 15 identified rural or remote communities of need. The government, through a number of programs, is set to spend $90 million per year for the next three years to address rural physician recruitment and retention.
Community-care, continuing-care, and home-care programs are set to see an increase of $219 million in 2022, for a total budget of $3.7 billion for the fiscal year.
The province plans to add 1,515 new continuing-care beds in long-term care, designated supported living, and mental-health beds, along with day spaces for mental health, and adult day program spaces for 2022-23.
Budget 2022 plans to invest an additional $20 million for recovery-oriented systems of care in 2022, on top of its yearly $1 billion in mental-health and addictions spending.
Drugs and supplemental health benefits are set to reach a total of $2 billion in 2022, an increase of $110 million from the previous year.
The province has allocated $1.2 billion to a variety of health initiatives, including $133 million over three years for the Alberta Surgical Initiative Capital Program, to increase surgical capacity and ensure all patients receive their required surgeries within clinically recommended timelines. The province has also allocated $204 million over the next three years to modernize continuing-care facilities and create new spaces.
The fiscal plan states the ministry is “doing its part” by improving efficiencies and monitoring costs, and maintaining fiscal responsibility to bring per-capita spending closer to comparator provinces.
“The minister of health and AHS are working to implement recommendations from the [Ernst & Young] report and deliver [services] more efficiently. That combination will result in better service and more cost-effective use of taxpayer dollars,” said Toews on Thursday.
In a response to a reporter’s question about how the province is increasing operational spending at a rate below its population growth, Toews responded that the province “inherited, by far and away, the most expensive health-care system in the country. And we still have the best funded health-care system of any province in the nation. But at the same time, our minister of health officials have been working hard to deliver more efficiently,” he said.
The province's 2022 budget is predicting operating expenses for health will increase by 2.7 per cent in each of the next two years, with a target of $22.6 billion in total spending on operating expense for 2022-23, excluding the $750-million COVID contingency fund, and $23.2 billion in spending 2024-25.