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Alberta health minister confirms capacity strain after neonatal doctors sound alarm

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Alberta's health minister says the province has "a bit of strain" in neonatal intensive care unit capacity but that there are beds available across the province.

Health Minister Adriana LaGrange made the comments Wednesday after Edmonton doctors released an open letter to her and the provincial health-care delivery agency raising concern vulnerable babies are at risk in units that have been too full and had staff stretched too thin.

"What I've heard from Alberta Health Services is in fact that we do have capacity. There is a bit of strain on the capacity right now," said LaGrange at an unrelated news conference.

LaGrange said no babies have been airlifted out of Edmonton or the province for care for seven years.

"My greatest concern is for babies to make sure that they're safe. And so, if we need to at some point do that, we will do that," said LaGrange.

The Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association wrote in the letter that a safe capacity in a neonatal ward is 80 to 85 per cent to allow for emergency cases, but those units were at 95 to 102 per cent capacity about a third of the time between January and March.

LaGrange has said she only learned of the issues outlined in the letter Tuesday, but the association said briefing notes sent to Alberta Health in 2022 and 2023 sounding the alarm for urgently needed beds had "largely been ignored."

"These babies have nowhere else to be cared for and we believe the situation has become so critical that deaths of infants may soon follow," Dr. Manpreet Gill, president of the medical group, and Dr. Amber Reichert, a neonatologist and association member, wrote in the letter.

Opposition New Democrats grilled LaGrange and Premier Danielle Smith during question period Wednesday, with leader Rachel Notley accusing the premier of gaslighting front-line health-care workers by refusing to acknowledge the problem.

LaGrange said as of Wednesday morning, there were 48 neonatal intensive care beds available across the province, including 12 in Edmonton and 17 in Calgary.

"I want to reassure parents across Alberta, that in fact when a child is sick, that we will in fact take care of that child," said LaGrange, who also pointed to the province's plans to build a stand-alone Stollery Children's Hospital in the provincial capital. 

She said Alberta Health Services is reviewing workforce capacity and addressing the concerns raised in the letter.

Speaking at the government news conference Wednesday, Alberta Medical Association president Dr. Paul Parks said the letter is concerning, but capacity has been a long-standing issue that predates LaGrange's time as health minister.

"There's times where our capacity is stretched to 100 per cent, 105 per cent, throughout the acute care system," he said.

"This has been brewing for a couple of years in regards to workforce." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2024.

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