Dr. John Cowell says AHS is open for business to get more properly equipped vans on the road to transport non-emergency patients.

Today it was announced AHS will now be utilizing alternate transportation for non-medical transfers to free up paramedics and ambulances. By doing so, officials believe it will divert about 15 per cent of transports from EMS, allowing paramedics to respond to about 70 more transports daily.

AHS administrator Dr. Cowell told of how he has been transported by one of these specially equipped vans after receiving treatment and expressed confidence in their use. He says AHS has a limited fleet of such vehicles but believes there is acute interest among private vendors.

"There's a huge push now to find contractors that we would approve on a vendor list," said Dr. Cowell. "The sense I'm getting is that there is a fair amount of interest in the community to provide that services on a contracted basis."

With today's announcement, a call was issued to community partners and operators interested in learning about how to join the preferred vendor lists to contact AHS.

Alternative transportation includes community shuttles, wheelchair-accessible taxis, and other locally available options. Each zone will have a list of providers that would be available to all hospitals. AHS will cover the cost of transportation for patients who are financially unable to do so.

Before the announcement, it was piloted in Calgary, Bonnyville, Valleyview, Athabasca, and St. Paul for six months. It is designed to provide non-clinical transports of patients who do not require medical support during transport and can care for themselves on the way, including patients who are cleared to be transferred or discharged from a facility or acute care.

Healthcare staff and physicians will use provincial guidelines and clinical judgment to determine if a patient can use alternative transportation options.

"We've heard loud and clear that paramedics are being tied up with transports that don't require their skills or an ambulance," Health minister Jason Copping said at a press conference this morning. "We need more paramedics and ambulances, and we need to free up the ones that we have right now."

He says the province has seen a 30 per cent increase in 911 calls and that's placing extreme pressure on a system that has limited slack.

Copping believes EMS response times are beginning to improve in most of the province's major centres, but admits it has been particularly hard to get it under control in the Calgary zone.

"We're still struggling in Calgary, especially because of the challenges that we're facing in emergency, and that's a system problem, not just an EMS problem. We need more capacity to get patients out of emergent faster and free up the staff for the next patient coming in with EMS. And some calls are still taking far too long across the province."

To further improve the system, AHS is attempting to add more triage physicians in emergency department waiting rooms to support ambulance offload. They are performing a secondary triage where 911 calls will be sent to 811 when appropriate. Additionally, they will allow paramedics to assess and treat without transport to the hospital.