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Government & policy

Alberta coughs up $3.9M for ventilators

EDMONTON – Alberta Health Services is spending $3.9 million to purchase 106 ventilators – boosting its total numbers to 506 devices – to prepare for a pandemic that may hit intensive care units this winter. If the H1N1 virus does return in a deadlier form, it is expected to fill ICU units with patients having trouble breathing.

The new ventilators will begin arriving later this month with the final units expected by mid-October.

The price tag was $2 million lower than expected, as the province negotiated a three-year province-wide contract and used money from pre-existing project equipment budgets. Alberta Health Services CEO and president Stephen Duckett said he’s prepared to spend more if the situation requires.

“Depending on its severity, we may need to alter our current budget strategies for reducing costs in the healthcare system in order to ensure we are fully prepared to deal with the pandemic,” he said.

That’s despite the plan to pinch pennies in the face of the health system’s $1-billion deficit.

Alberta Health Services budget chiefs are seeking to find 3 percent in savings by offering early retirement packages to nurses and other healthcare workers, as well as having its long-term care and Catholic hospital partners find ways to cut.

The strategy is to transfer resources to fight the flu, in case of an emergency. “We will also explore the option of scaling back non-essential work, for example, by delaying elective surgery to free up staff and resources to handle H1N1 cases,” Duckett said, noting he gets updates on the situation every Tuesday.

He recently talked with people in the Australian state of Victoria, which has about 20 percent more people than Alberta and has already seen the flu pack a wallop during the winter. The state needed to create another 10 to 20 beds in intensive care to accommodate the patient crunch.

“Although the admissions to hospitals are roughly the same as ordinary flu, the admissions to ICU intensive care units are much greater, and so we’re preparing just in case the same happens here,” Duckett said. Hospital stays also tend to be longer with this flu strain. “We might need to rapidly expand our intensive-care capacity.”

Dr. Gerry Predy, medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services, said the regular flu strain typically makes five to 10 percent of the population sick. He said he expects 15 to 20 percent of people will get sick when the second H1N1 wave hits this fall, since few have immunity. In the end, he said up to 35 percent of the population could get sick over the flu season.