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The South Health Campus adult acute care hospital in Calgary on April 1, 2020. An open letter signed by nearly 200 ER doctors said Alberta's health care system was deteriorating.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Nearly 200 emergency-room doctors are urging Albertans to vote for a party that will prioritize fixing what they say is a deteriorating health care system causing patients and care providers to languish without support.

An open letter released Wednesday morning, just five days ahead of the May 29 vote, said lack of access to primary care, limited hospital capacity and a critical labour shortage are eroding emergency departments. The signatories said the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis and “untimely” government policies have brought the system to collapse.

“Frontline healthcare workers have truly had enough. We cannot bear to watch our patients suffer any longer with no end in sight,” the letter said. “It is our sincere hope that whomever forms the next government will begin the process of repair, starting with the restoration of what was once a respectful relationship with frontline healthcare workers.”

The letter does not name the United Conservative Party but points to policy decisions made during the party’s four-year term, including a proposed pay cut to nurses that the UCP walked back and the government’s heated pay dispute with doctors during the pandemic.

UCP Leader Danielle Smith and her New Democratic Party rival Rachel Notley responded to the letter during respective announcements on Wednesday, while also taking questions on various controversies that have dogged the UCP campaign. This included renewed concerns about Ms. Smith’s relationship with Artur Pawlowski, a street preacher criminally convicted for his efforts during the Coutts border blockade.

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Artur Pawlowski holds a press conference to talk about his phone call with UCP Leader Danielle Smith, in Edmonton, on May 24.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

On the letter, Ms. Smith defended the UCP’s efforts to improve the system under her leadership and noted improvements must be made to primary care. Meanwhile, Ms. Notley said the letter contradicts Ms. Smith’s assertion that progress has been made and reiterated her party’s plan to expand family medicine.

Both parties have made health care among their top priorities.

The letter, signed by 192 doctors, focused on Calgary but said rural areas are “equally suffering” with staff shortages and intermittent closings of urgent and emergency care departments. They said between 40 and 50 patients are waiting at any given time to see a doctor, sometimes up to 15 hours.

“Frail, elderly patients languish on stretchers in hospital hallways. Patients with mental health crises are housed in the emergency room, often for several days, while awaiting in-patient beds,” the group said, adding there are additional service gaps because of a limited number of emergency nurses and surgical and cardiac specialists.

The physicians said the payment structure imposed by Alberta Health has discouraged doctors from working in family medicine, leaving tens of thousands of Albertans without a family doctor who can address chronic health issues or concerns before they become worse and require emergency attention.

There are also difficulties attracting new talent to Alberta. Forty-two residency spots went unfilled after the first round of matching this year, compared with two unfilled spots in British Columbia and zero in Saskatchewan. And the outcome of this provincial election will be a factor in retaining talent, they noted.

“There is an election fast approaching and we hope that health care is a top priority for political parties and for voters. The health of our population depends on this,” the letter said.

But policy conversations took a back seat to questions of leadership on the campaign trail Wednesday. Mr. Pawlowski hosted a news conference of his own to vilify Ms. Smith, who was found to have breached Alberta’s ethics rules for discussing his criminal case with Justice Minister Tyler Shandro.

The preacher made a number of allegations of Ms. Smith or her staff bribing him but provided no evidence. Ahead of the news conference, Ms. Smith told media: “He’s been questioned and found guilty and I have nothing further to say on that.”

She also faced renewed questions about Jennifer Johnson’s status as a UCP candidate after conflicting information was posted by Ms. Johnson’s constituency association. Ms. Smith said the candidate, who made transphobic statements, won’t be allowed to sit in the UCP caucus if elected despite stating there was room for redemption days earlier.

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