Faced with the impending closure of Edmonton's inner-city municipal airport, the Alberta government is pressing forward with its plan to move its medevac flights to the international airport farther away, despite calls from northern doctors who say the decision will cost lives.
The long-simmering battle has put Premier Alison Redford in a bind.
Her government is responsible for air ambulance fixed-wing flights, which it says brings about 3,000 rural or small-city patients a year to major hospitals around the capital's downtown core. About 16 per cent of these cases are emergencies, with the rest for scheduled procedures.
But the province is not responsible for the small city-centre airport, which the City of Edmonton is closing to redevelop as residential land.
The province has responded by building a new medevac base at the Edmonton International Airport (EIA), which is south of the city, and beginning Friday will start receiving all provincial medevac flights.
More than 100 doctors have put their names to letters warning that lives are at risk under the "flawed" relocation plan and want the Premier to intervene.
Richard Birkill, medical director at the hospital in Lac La Biche, said his facility sees a huge volume of patients from accidents in the oil fields and along Highway 63, and sends 120 critically injured people a year – sometimes four in one shift – to Edmonton by fixed-wing aircraft to the municipal airport bound for one of the major city hospitals.
It's a trip that takes 38 minutes door-to-door, but Dr. Birkill said would stretch to about two hours given the longer flight, the taxi down the runway, the change over to ground ambulance and the drive north to downtown.
"It's a nightmare," Dr. Birkill said. "A lot of them that we are able to save right now we'll no longer be able to save."
What's worse, he said, Albertans will receive second-rate care even though the municipal airport is still open and receiving patients from elsewhere.
"The biggest kick in the teeth is out-of-province medevacs are still using city centre. Private medevacs are still using city centre. Just Albertans will be forced to go to the international [airport]," he said.
Alberta's MLAs held an emergency debate on the issue in the legislature Thursday, though the government wasn't budging.
The government has said the new hangar and health facilities will allow patients to be treated continuously en route to hospital.
Wildrose argued they should delay the relocation.
"Let's not wait until tragedy happens to change course," said Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw.
Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths told the legislature that, after changes at the EIA, the city-centre airport "obviously doesn't" provide better care.
Ms. Redford has dismissed the concerns about subpar patient care.
"People that are in trauma situations are usually connected to medical systems well ahead of the medevac system. So, from our perspective, that's what we'll keep talking about. We know that there'll be lots of questions and I think there will be opportunities for us to learn as we move along, and to improve the system all the time," she told reporters this week, when her government spent $17,289 to fly three plane-loads of northern politicians and journalists to Edmonton, so they could tour the new hangar.
The Tory Leader shrugged off the "Save Our Medevac" campaign, saying air ambulance still exists and that expropriating land from the City of Edmonton at a cost of about $2-billion would be both inappropriate and prohibitively expensive.
Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel echoed that and played down concerns.
"People have to drop an issue that isn't really an issue any more, and get on with their lives, and respect that the province is going to maintain a more-than-adequate facility for medevac, and not continue to scare people," he said Thursday. "It is a city decision. The city made the decision to develop the land, because we need residential land in order to develop our city."
The municipal airport opened in 1929, but was closed to commercial flights after a 1995 decision. In recent years, private planes, the Government of Alberta's aircraft and medevac flights have made up much of the traffic. In 2010, one of the two runways was closed. The city hasn't set a date to close the other.
Wildrose – and the doctors – argue there's no reason to stop the medevac flights now. "It seems to us the very last plane that should take off, or land, at that airport should be a medevac plane," Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith told the legislature Thursday, "… There absolutely is no rush."
A 2011 Health Quality Council Report made a series of recommendations to smooth the transition of medevac services between the two airports. The government accepted many, though not all, of the recommendations. "While there are specific groups of patients for whom an increased journey duration represents an increased threat to their well-being, it is difficult to determine the magnitude of this effect," the report found.