AB’s acute care beds trailing population growth

Since at least 2012, the number of acute care beds per person in Alberta has been decreasing, despite hundreds of more beds. The opposite is the case for continuing care beds and addictions/mental health care beds.

In late November, Alberta Health Services released their 2021-2022 annual report.

I was curious regarding how Alberta’s healthcare system has been doing under the UCP, so I thought this was as good as time to go through the data over the last 3 years.

But to provide even more context, I decided to go back a full decade, to take in the last 4 years under the PC government and the 4 years of the NDP’s first term.

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This article will specifically look at beds, particularly acute beds, continuing care beds, and addiction/mental health beds.

At the end of March 2022, there were 8,523 acute care beds in Alberta. That’s up 10 since the previous March and up 40 since March 2019, the last year of the NDP’s administration.

There were 28,360 continuing care, up 387 from 2021 and 1,197 from when the NDP were in power.

Finally, there were 3,077 beds for addiction and mental health care. This number has increased 237 over the previous year and 305 over the previous 3 years.

So, that’s good, right?

Well, let’s dive into the numbers some more. First, how about we look at how much each type of care saw their number of beds increase each year over the last decade.

Starting with acute care beds.

Well, that’s interesting.

One thing’s for sure. The number of acute beds increased far more under the PCs than they did under either the NDP or the UCP. At least in the last 3 years under their 4-decade dynasty.

The PCs averaged 119 beds a year during the last 3 years of their term. The NDP averaged just 3 new acute care beds during their 4 years (which was hit significantly by that drop in 2017). The UCP averaged 13 new beds a year during the first 3 years of their term.

Between the NDP and the UCP, we’ve averaged just 7 new acute care beds over the last 7 years. Down from an average of 119 per year.

That’s pathetic.

Next is continuing care.

That certainly tells a different story.

The single largest increase occurred under the NDP. In fact, they averaged 803 new continuing care beds a year while they were in power. By comparison, the PCs brought in 697 new beds per year, on average. The UCP, however, averaged only 399 per year.

The UCP created half the number of new beds per year than were created under the NDP.

And finally, let’s looks at addictions and mental health beds.

Wow. It really does seem as though each party had their own little niche focus of health care.

The largest increase in the number of addictions/mental health beds actually came just last year, when Alberta saw 237 more beds. The next highest increase was in 2016–2017 under the NDP, when Alberta saw an increase of 124 new beds.

As far aas annual averages, the PCs saw 66 more beds per year during the last 3 years of their term, the NDP brought it 83 beds per year, and the UCP increased it by 102 per year.

Now, all that being said, looking at just the absolute numbers and saying, “Oh, we have more beds, so things much be better.” doesn’t really tell the whole story.

After all, while acute care beds have increased by 40, continuing care beds by 1,197, and addictions and mental health beds by 305 while the UCP have been in power, the population has also increased by over 150,000 people during the same period.

So, to get a clearer picture of whether the growth in these 3 areas over the last 3 years is a good thing, we must look at the number of beds per person, or more accurately, the number of persons per bed.

During the UCP’s first 3 years in power, ther number of persons per acute care bed has increased from 510.53 to 525.92. In other words, although we have 40 new acute care beds than we did in the final quarter of the NDP’s administration, that increase didn’t keep up with increase to the general population.

But, to be fair, during the last decade, the number of persons per acute care beds has actually increased every single year—under the PCs, the NDP, and, of course, the UCP.

In 2012, the number of persons per bed was 471.42. That means that today, even though we have over 400 more beds than we did a decade ago, there are about 55 more people per bed than there were in 2012.

Our acute care capacity in the province has worsened, even though the number of beds has increased.

For continuing care, we see the opposite trend.

Instead of increasing, the number of people per continuing care beds has decreased. And that’s a good thing.

It’s also not surprising.

Over the last 10 years, Alberta has added over 6,500 more continuing care beds, roughly 16 times more than the number of new acute care beds.

We went from 175.00 people per continuing care bed in 2012 to 158.05 a decade later.

Now that being said, the decrease since the UCP took power has almost stagnated, dropping only 1.39 persons per bed since the NDP were kicked out in the spring of 2019.

By comparison, that number dropped by 12.42 under the NDP and 3.14 during the last 3 years under the PCs.

So, while it’s better under the UCP, technically, than it was under the NDP, you’d think that 1,200 more continuing care beds would’ve had a larger impact during the first 3 years of their term.

Finally, let’s look at addictions and mental health care beds.

The number of persons per addictions and mental health care bed dropped a lot over between March 2021 and March 2022. In fact, it fell by 102.8 person per bed, the largest drop in the last 10 years.

But funny enough, because the number of persons per bed actually increased during the UCP’s first year and they saw the third smallest decrease in their second, they ended up with an total decrease of 105.61.

That’s significantly more than the total of 18.5 that the PCs saw (they had the only other increase), but it’s still lower than the total decrease of 125.25 the NDP saw.

Unlike the other two parties, the NDP saw a decrease in the number of persons per bed every year they were in power, averaging 31.31 fewer persons per bed each year.

One other thing as I wrap up. I found it interesting that the largest increase to continuing care beds over the last 10 years came in the NDP’s final year, as they headed into an election.

Likewise, the largest increase to addictions and mental health care beds occurred in the last year of Jason Kenney’s tenure, just as he was getting ready for a much anticipated leadership review, and as his administration continued to try dodging poor polling leading into their final year before the next election in the spring of 2023.

It’ll be interesting to see if there are more announcements from Danielle Smith, Kenney’s successor, as we head into a new election in just a few months.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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