The departure of doctors from St. Paul will have a particularly hard effect on seniors says Paul Boisvert, president of the Alberta Council on Aging’s northeast region.

Four doctors have announced that they will be leaving St. Paul following the decision of Dr. Iftikhar Ahmad to move his surgery practice to Cold Lake. With no general surgeon in St. Paul, the other doctors are not able to practice in their own specialty areas.

Boisvert said the departures mean seniors will have to travel out of town to get some of the medical services they had been receiving in St. Paul.

“The less services we have here, that means the more often we have to go out of the community to access these,” Boisvert said. 

“Every time you have to travel for health care, that involves a cost. And many of these seniors do not enjoy pensions beyond what they get from the government—the OAS and the CPP, if they paid into it,” he said. 

Many retired farmers, for example, never paid into the Canada Pension Plan and rely on the Old Age Security amount and whatever savings they may have. 

According to Boisvert, “a lot of seniors in our area live below the poverty line.”

And, he adds, the aging process brings its own set of medical needs.

“When you’ve got one part of the body that is ailing badly, it affects all of your body,” he said. And while small communities obviously can’t support the range of medical disciplines available in larger cities, the domino effect from St. Paul losing its surgeon creates unnecessary hardships for a great many seniors in the area.

“I don’t expect to have a cardiologist who can perform heart surgeries. We know we have to travel for certain things,” he said. But the list of conditions that require travelling to Edmonton for treatment is growing, and many seniors are dealing with more than one condition. 

“For them to go to Edmonton to see a specialist is a burden, and then they have limited followup locally,” he said.

Boisvert says there is a lack of local accountability between Alberta Health Services and the community, and he says the provincial government is passing the buck.

He referred to remarks from MLA David Hanson, quoted September 22 in Lakeland This Week, saying frustrated constituents shouldn’t be calling him or the Minster of Health, but should take their complaints to AHS management. 

“The whole Alberta Health Services thing is totally out of control,” Boisvert said. “The government over the years created a monster, and they have no control over it whatsoever. 

“Or they don’t want to exhibit control. Because when you have the MLA who says to constituents, ‘don’t contact me about this. Don’t contact the Minister of Health or the premier, contact Alberta Health Services,’ well who in the hell is running Alberta Health Services?” Boisvert said.

He said a recent study by the Centre for Rural Health Research at the University of British Columbia found that people from rural and remote parts of that province pay an average of $2,234 out-of-pocket when they are forced to travel out of their communities for medical care. 

He believes the situation is comparable in Alberta, and the loss of doctors in St. Paul is creating financial and even medical hardship for local seniors. “Sure you can get a tax writeoff, but if you’re not paying income tax because you are below the poverty line to start off with, it doesn’t do you any good,” he said.

He said the situation will end up adding pressure on the public system when people forego treatment and end up with more complex health conditions.

“The structure of healthcare delivery in rural Alberta does not recognize the true needs of the rural hospital communities, but those decisions are being made by people who don’t take everything into consideration,” Boisvert said. 

“The voice of rural Alberta is very, very poor, that’s my position.”