Health unions push back against mental health and addictions care shakeup in Alberta


Major health-care unions are raising the alarm about the Alberta government’s planned transition to a new mental health and addictions agency, which will affect thousands of health-care staff across the province.

By early July, the province intends to move delivery of these services, currently under the health ministry, to a new organization called Recovery Alberta, which will be overseen by the Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction.

It’s the first of a number of shakeups to come as the provincial government follows through on its sweeping health reform plans.

The United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) claims the transition, which will impact 3,200 of its members — in settings ranging from hospitals and psychiatric facilities to provincial correctional centres and residential treatment facilities — violates its collective agreement.

The union filed an unfair labour practice complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board on Monday, alleging Alberta Health Services (AHS) failed to negotiate in good faith.

It claims AHS disregarded nurses’ negotiated rights and the transfer was announced without consulting or sharing information with the union

The UNA, which is in the midst of bargaining, said that under a longstanding letter of understanding, members can choose whether to move to a new employer when there is a transfer of services or remain with AHS and move into a vacancy or displace someone with less seniority.

“We weren’t consulted in terms of the announcement last week, and to be honest, it came as quite a shock to us,” said David Harrigan, director of labour relations with UNA.

“They’re already overworked and feeling unappreciated, and if they hear that the government’s just going to run roughshod over their collective agreement rights, it’s going to make it hard to retain. It’s going to make it very difficult to recruit.”

Harrigan said any changes made at the bargaining table now will transfer to Recovery Alberta.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Nate Horner said he disagrees with claims of bad faith bargaining.

“I’ve seen the process behind the scenes. I can certainly say everything that I’ve seen has been very much in good faith. We want this to land in a good place,” said Horner.

“We would like to see a deal done.”

Meanwhile, the health authority said it will “continue to bargain in good faith” and it respects the bargaining process.

“AHS will work through the established process with the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) to address UNA’s complaint to ensure a productive path forward,” spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in an email.

David Harrigan is wearing a jacket and tie sitting in an office.
David Harrigan is the director of labour relations with the United Nurses of Alberta. He says the union wasn’t consulted before last week’s announcement. (CBC)

No answers forthcoming, unions say

Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), said his union — which is also in collective bargaining — wasn’t consulted prior to last week’s announcement either, and he has been unable to get his questions answered.

According to Parker, approximately 3,200 HSAA members, including addictions counsellors, psychologists and mental health therapists, are impacted by the transition.

“We continue to work with the health ministry, with other unions, trying to figure out what’s happening, and at the moment I don’t have any answers,” he said.

According to Parker, the news is difficult to take for staff who are dealing with the opioid crisis.

“They’re trying to do their job and save lives and hold the system together, and the ideology of just another change is just devastating to them.”

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) has similar concerns.

According to Sandra Azocar, AUPE vice-president, 3,500 members will be moved to the new agency, including licensed practical nurses and health-care aides, as well as general support staff. 

Sandra Azocar has short dark brown hair. She's standing on a sidewalk
Sandra Azocar, vice-president of the AUPE, says the rush to make changes doesn’t inspire confidence. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

“The government is rushing ahead so fast with the changes to the way that care is provided that we are unsure. And that doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence,” said Azocar.

“A system that was already in chaos is going to [experience] a lot more chaos.”

During a news conference Tuesday, Alberta’s minister of mental health and addiction wouldn’t comment directly on the unfair labour practice complaint. But Dan Williams tried to assure front-line staff of a smooth transition.

“I plan to have the terms of employment continue on without change going forward for health-care professions as they come over,” said Williams, adding he plans to work closely with front-line staff and their unions ahead of the move.

“I want to work positively with them. I think that there’s an opportunity to find common ground here.”

His press secretary said in an email that staff won’t be moved until July, providing time for that consultation.

“A key reason why we were proactive with the announcement of Recovery Alberta is to ensure we can have many more discussions with employees and their unions during the three-month consultation period,” said Hunter Baril.

Four engagement sessions are planned in April for affected staff.

Jennifer Jackson, a registered nurse and assistant professor in the nursing faculty at the University of Calgary, is worried about the implications for the next steps of the government’s health-care overhaul. It includes the creation of three additional organizations to oversee delivery of acute care, primary care and continuing care.

“What we’re seeing now is the first indication that this specific transition … is not well planned, and that casts doubt to me across the whole system,” she said.

“Health-care systems are incredibly complex. And the idea that we can just cut and slice and move people around and it’s effortless is misguided at best.”


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