Ontario's health minister says the province is looking at how to get internationally trained nurses working here as quickly as possible, as a way to address staffing shortages that have led to emergency room closures for hours or even days at a time.
Sylvia Jones spoke to the Canadian Press amid a growing chorus of opposition MPPs calling for her to provide tangible solutions to what they say is a crisis facing the province's health-care system.
CBC Toronto had repeatedly reached out to Jones for an interview regarding the staff shortages at Ontario hospitals. The requests were all denied.
Jones told The Canadian Press her role in the last number of weeks has been to meet with organizations and individuals in the sector who have solutions, and listening to their feedback.
Jones says the work involves what the government has already been doing for the past four years, which includes increasing the number of workers in the system — she touts more than 10,000 added since the start of the pandemic.
She says the government will introduce "additional measures" to boost capacity, and specifically mentioned a backlog of internationally trained health workers waiting for certifications.
Repeal of Bill 124 'a conversation for another day': health minister
Nursing groups, hospital executives and other health-care professionals and advocates have said that burnout after being on the COVID-19 front lines for more than two years and not being properly compensated have caused people to leave the profession in droves, leading to some hospitals being unable to properly staff emergency departments.
Nurses have called for wage restraint legislation known as Bill 124 to be repealed, but Jones says, "that is a conversation for another day."
At a news conference Tuesday morning, Ontario Liberal MPPs John Fraser and Dr. Adil Shamji said Jones and Premier Doug Ford have been missing in action while the health-care sector faces unprecedented levels of pressure and emergency rooms across the province are forced to close.
"For months now, Ontario's nurses, doctors and front-line health-care workers have been alerting the Ford government to the crisis that we are now experiencing in our hospitals," Fraser said.
"The situation is very serious, that situation is very grave. The problem is we don't have enough people to provide the care that people need. Nurses are leaving the profession at twice the normal rate and it's not slowing down.
According to the Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA), about 25 hospitals in Ontario were forced to scale back sections of their facilities on the long weekend due to staff shortages.
Message is 'you're on your own,' says Liberal MPP
According to Fraser, "throughout this crisis" both the premier and the minister of health have been absent and silent.
"The message the premier and the minister is sending to the front lines, to patients and their families is we don't care, it's not a big deal, you're on your own," Fraser said.
In a statement sent to CBC Toronto on Friday, Jones said the Ontario government has added more than 10,500 health-care workers to the health-care system since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That number includes more than 762 internationally educated nurses, who have been placed in 62 hospitals across the province, she said.
"Like many other jurisdictions around the world, Ontario's health system faces pressures due to the challenge of maintaining the required staffing levels. We have been working proactively with all partners, including Ontario Health and the 140 public hospital corporations, the regulatory colleges, and health sector unions, to address these staffing pressures," she said.
Jones added that the government needs to identify both short and long term solutions to staff shortages.
ONA president Cathryn Hoy said on Monday that over the weekend, hospitals had to close units, reduce the number of beds or redirect patients to other locations. She called the situation a "disaster" and warned that the staff shortages seen in hospitals across the province on the weekend will only get worse.
"This getting by has got to stop now. It really does. And nurses are walking out every single day," Hoy said. "And if this keeps up and there's no ray of sunshine or hope from the government, it's only going to get worse."
Hoy said she thinks the September long weekend will be "horrendous." The ONA represents 68,000 nurses and health-care professionals and 18,000 nursing student affiliates.
She called for the repeal of legislation, known as Bill 124, that limits annual salary increases for nurses. Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, which was enacted in 2019, caps the wage increases of provincial employees, including nurses, at one per cent per year, which is below the rate of inflation.
"The government needs to sit down with us, pay people what they should be paid, look at getting staffing in them, change some of the programming because people need a rest," she said.
'Zero leadership' being shown, MPP says
Shamji, who is also an emergency physician, says "there has been zero leadership" from Ford and Jones, despite repeated calls for action.
"Truthfully, I am perplexed that not even the closure of the emergency departments in Minister Jones's own riding has compelled her to say any single word or take any action whatsoever," Shamji said.
"I have not been able to get a single response from Minister Jones, despite multiple emails and even last week resorting to sending a letter in the mail.
"Premier Ford and Minister Jones need to come out … and they need to demonstrate leadership," he added.
Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario (RNAO), said on Monday the nursing staff shortage has reached a critical point. She described the situation as "dire." RNAO is a professional association that represents registered nurses, nurse practitioners and nursing students in Ontario.
Grinspun said she hopes a meeting with Ontario government cabinet ministers, including Health Minister Sylvia Jones, that is expected to happen soon, will make a difference.
"We need giant steps, which means all solutions on board at once. And also these solutions cannot wait until the legislature resumes on August 8. They need to happen now," she said.