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Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping says there are about 70,000 Albertans currently waiting for surgeries – dipping from a high of more than 85,000 in November 2021, according to the Alberta Surgical Initiative dashboard.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta is contracting an independent health care facility to perform thousands of orthopedic surgeries annually in Calgary as part of its plan to reduce surgical wait times and boost hospital capacity.

Health Minister Jason Copping announced Monday that Canadian Surgery Solutions, which operates surgical clinics across Canada, has been contracted to provide 3,000 publicly-funded hip and knee replacements and other joint procedures per year through a contract with Alberta Health Services. Such orthopedic surgeries make up the largest group on the waiting list, with 6,000 patients in Calgary alone, he added.

Scores of surgeries were cancelled during the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing provinces across the country to look for ways to clear backlogs. Ontario is following the lead of Alberta and other provinces, such as Quebec and Saskatchewan, that already contract private clinics to perform publicly-funded surgeries. British Columbia, by contrast, is pumping money into its public health system at the expense of private operators accused of underusing operating rooms.

Critics of increased private involvement in health care have argued that contracting to independent surgical centres will take resources away from the public system and elsewhere, and have warned of extra-billing or upselling.

But Mr. Copping said the United Conservative Party government is working to grow the public system. He said because private clinics offer the same procedure repeatedly, it is a cheaper and more effective avenue for certain procedures and allows hospitals to focus on more complex cases.

In total, the Health Minister said there are about 70,000 Albertans currently waiting for surgeries – dipping from a high of more than 85,000 in November, 2021, according to the Alberta Surgical Initiative dashboard. The latest data show about 52 per cent of patients last month were waiting longer than recommended for their given procedures, down three percentage points when compared with December, 2021.

“The wait times are far too long, and we have to get them down,” Mr. Copping said. “That means we need to fund more surgeries, and what we need to do is use all the tools at our disposal to make this happen. We need to add ORs at hospitals and contract chartered surgical facilities to add this capacity.”

He said the partnership will increase total orthopedic surgeries in Calgary by 21 per cent. About 21,200 people in Alberta are on the orthopedic waiting list. The national benchmark to receive knee or hip surgery is about six months, but it is taking more than double that amount of time on average for Albertans.

Mr. Copping also announced that 11 operating rooms are being added to Calgary’s Foothills Hospital, expected to open in 2025, in addition to new or expanded operating spaces at hospitals in Edmonton, Edson, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Rocky Mountain House.

David Shepherd, the Opposition NDP’s health critic, called it a “privatization scheme” in a statement Monday, arguing that the government should instead focus on building capacity within the public system.

“Private companies exist to make a profit, and every health-care dollar that goes to companies’ profit margin is a dollar taken out of the public system. Sooner or later those dollars start coming out of patients’ pockets,” the statement says.

The Alberta government said residents have been offered publicly funded procedures through chartered surgical facilities since the 1990s. In a statement on Tuesday, the province said about 20 per cent of surgeries in the 2021-22 fiscal year were provided in private clinics.

The statement says AHS has issued two requests for proposals for chartered surgical facilities to perform surgeries in central and southern Alberta, ranging from hip and knee to general surgeries. These clinics must receive accreditation from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta.

Last February, then-premier Jason Kenney said the goal was to double the proportion of private operations from 15 per cent to 30 per cent. During the 2019 election, he campaigned on a promise to reduce surgical backlogs. Mr. Kenney at that time also promised that every Albertan would receive scheduled surgeries within a clinically appropriate time – an objective Mr. Copping on Tuesday said the government plans to execute in the next 12 to 18 months.

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