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‘Nothing has changed’ on Alberta lab, minister says after health-services chief says otherwise

Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne.

CHRIS BOLIN/The Globe and Mail

Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne stepped in Monday to clear up a confusing tweet from the president of Alberta Health Services on the fate of the proposed privatized $3-billion Edmonton medical super-lab.

Just days after Duncan Campbell tweeted that the lab will not proceed with its bid process as planned pending further consultations, Horne told reporters that is not the case.

"Nothing has changed. We're still moving ahead with a request for proposals for a single lab facility to serve Edmonton and northern Alberta," Horne said.

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"I think what Mr. Campbell was reflecting on was the fact there needs to be adequate consultation.

"[But] these contracts in Edmonton are expiring in 2015. We need to be ready."

On Friday, Campbell said that he is putting the brakes on the bid process for the lab, which would affect 1,000 jobs.

"AHS will not be issuing its lab RFP [request for proposals] as planned. Stay tuned for decision in mid Dec. when we complete consultation with staff and physicians," read the tweet.

Campbell was not made available Monday, but Dr. John Cowell, chief administrator for Alberta Health Services, echoed Horne's comments that the search for the super-lab provider continues.

Cowell said they expect to be taking bids "well before the end of the year."

He said Campbell's intent was to let people know he was seeking more feedback, but Cowell admitted the tweet wasn't well worded.

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"There's lots of ways we can communicate, but tweeting may be a little bit too concise," he said.

Alberta Health Services is the front-line delivery arm of Alberta's Health Department and ultimately reports to Horne.

Campbell is in charge while a search is conducted for a replacement for previous CEO Chris Eagle.

AHS plans to solicit bids for a single private provider to build and operate a super-lab that would handle all medical testing for the Edmonton area.

Currently, routine testing is being handled by a private provider, Dynalife, while acute hospital and urgent testing is handled by AHS and Covenant Health.

In a September letter to staff, Alberta Health Services officials said a privatized super-lab was needed to handle all testing in Edmonton. If successful, said the officials, it could lead to similar labs in other regions, with the Edmonton one becoming a provincewide testing clearinghouse.

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"Alberta is faced with growing demand for laboratory services, new and often more expensive tests and testing platforms, growth in costs, space constraints, an aging workforce and recruitment challenges; status quo laboratory services are unsustainable," read the letter dated Sept. 18.

The contract was to be given to a sole-source provider for 15 years at a cost of $3-billion and take effect after the province's deal with Dynalife expires on March 31, 2015.

The new lab would affect the jobs of 1,000 AHS and Covenant employees, but AHS promised it would demand comparable wages and benefits from the new provider.

Alberta's NDP has been pushing Premier Alison Redford's government to scrap the deal, saying there's no proof the lab would save money and adding it could actually reduce the quality of testing service.

Last week, the NDP released a letter from 16 pathologists who said to be effective they need to have ready access to other specialists.

Cowell, however, said an overwhelming number of the 90 pathologists are in favour of the super-lab.

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