How much would it cost to make Northwest Territories' health-care system comparable to systems in southern Canada? More than an extra $32 million, says Premier Caroline Cochrane.
Canada's premiers met in Victoria this week for the Council of the Federation summit, and strains on the country's health-care systems were a top agenda item.
The premiers called on the federal government to increase the amount of provincial and territorial health-care costs covered by Ottawa through the Canada Health Transfer, from 22 per cent to 35 per cent, in a joint statement released Tuesday.
The Canada Health Transfer is the largest transfer payment the federal government makes to provinces and territories.
In the Northwest Territories, such an increase as suggested by the premiers, would amount to an additional $32 million, Cochrane said at a media briefing Wednesday.
"While this would help support our already struggling health-care system, it doesn't fully address the gaps that currently exist — additional investment from Canada will be required," she said.
It's hard to put a dollar figure on exactly how much more money the N.W.T. needs, especially amid the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, said Cochrane, but "we do need more."
Health and Social Services regularly runs a deficit
The Health and Social Services Department regularly runs a deficit, said the premier.
"I hate to say it but I often call [Health and Social Services] the poor cousin because other departments are diligently trying to make sure they come within budgets, but how do you say no to health care?" she said.
"As cabinet, we all recognize that although they have a budget, that it will be overextended."
The territory estimates that this year, more than $594 million – nearly 29 per cent of its budget – will be spent on health and social services. Close to $54 million is set to come through the Canada Health Transfer.
In their case for increasing federal health-care transfers, the premiers allude to nation-wide health-care staff shortages, a problem the Northwest Territories is all too familiar with.
This summer, a staff shortage forced the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority to cut lab and diagnostic imaging services in Yellowknife, and physician availability in Hay River. The health authority also blamed a staff shortage for the suspension of birthing services at Stanton Territorial Hospital last winter.
Staff shortages adding to health care costs, says MLA
Lesa Semmler, MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, worked as a nurse, and in other health care roles, in the N.W.T. for 17 years. She said ongoing health staff shortages are costing the territory even more money.
"We have such a shortage in staff that the majority of the staff are always working overtime … and that's something that's not budgeted," she said.
"In my experience in the past, you can't budget for overtime, so it's always just an added expense."
Cochrane said the territory has long struggled to recruit health-care professionals, despite offering attractive salaries and benefits.
The pandemic made things worse, as southern jurisdictions enhanced wages and benefits to draw more health-care workers into their over-burdened systems, chipping away at the N.W.T.'s competitive position.
Cochrane said in response, the territorial government pushed harder to recruit and retain health-care staff, and that this push is now yielding results.
"Just within the last 30 days we're seeing an increase in nurses coming into the Northwest Territories," she said.
"It's a start, but it's something that we're going to have to put a strong focus on, probably for the next couple of years."
Semmler said she hadn't heard about the new nurses, and questioned whether they're permanent or locums.
"Because we've had lots of locum nurses, and that, also, is an extra expense on the health-care system: covering the cost for travel, and the per diems, and all of the other expenses that go along with flying in and out nurses for short terms," she said.
"We need to figure out a way to secure more nurses, and long-term, because the health of the people of the Northwest Territories will only get better when our health practitioners live here and know the people."
Semmler said the ongoing staff shortage isn't the only pressure on the N.W.T.'s health-care system. The territory deals with numerous, exceptional health-care expenses, from medevacs, to medical travel, to out-of-territory long-term care and addictions treatment.