At a media briefing on Thursday, Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister John Haggie announced that he's offered to form a working group of health officials and administrators to address operational problems with the province's emergency services.
The announcement followed a meeting between the health minister, Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees president Jerry Earle and four paramedics that Haggie described as "emotional."
"What I heard today clearly was there were still significant gaps and they felt that more — much more in some areas — needed to be done," Haggie said.
Haggie said the group would meet with paramedics and other stakeholders in the province's emergency health care system to understand and address operational problems.
NAPE has called for more staff and equipment, more mental health support, a solution to offload delays at hospitals, and the consistent publication of statistics regarding red alerts and response times.
At a press conference following the briefing, Earle said he was "not happy" with Haggie's suggestion that paramedics meet with a group of civil servants, but will still accept the offer.
"This is too important. It has to be dealt with," he said.
Earle said paramedics are "frustrated" by inaction from the Department of Health.
Haggie said that he was not aware of all the problems facing the province's emergency health care system, and said there were gaps preventing him from getting the necessary information.
"You know, you get the numbers, you get the percentages, but it doesn't tell you the story behind the two percent who have a problem, it simply identifies them," he said.
Haggie said the working group will help him get a more accurate understanding of the situation paramedics are facing. Earle, however, said paramedics have been trying to get Haggie to listen for years.
"This has been on the go for an excess of a decade. It is not new and the minister should be fully aware of these issues," he said. "The minister has got to stop blaming the regional health authorities and the regional authorities have got to stop blaming the minister because there's people's lives hanging in the balance here."
Haggie said the pandemic has hampered the ability of the Health Department to fix emergency services, and said the province was slow in responding to concerns raised at a meeting held in April because Newfoundland and Labrador was coming off the third wave of COVID-19.
"That's an excuse," said Earle.
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Haggie acknowledged the frustration of paramedics, and said the group could begin meetings as early as next week.
"What I took from that meeting was there was a serious need for all of us to collaborate," Haggie said.
NAPE has asked the government to recognize the credentials of paramedics trained outside the province more quickly, a request Haggie said the department started working on immediately.
Haggie said he also asked Earle and the paramedics if they had suggestions for other short-term solutions.
Earle condemned the minister's response to the paramedics as flippant.
"That is your job. You have multiple recommendations that have been provided," he said.
Earle pointed to the mental health challenges faced by frontline workers.
"He may not know, but again, he should know that our paramedics are being physically and mentally injured."
Haggie pointed to existing mental health supports, but acknowledged that paramedics need more specialized supports.
Earle also said the province's ambulance system is short-staffed, which can lead to "red alerts." A "red alert" is when there is no ambulance available to respond to an emergency.
Haggie acknowledged that there was a period of time during Hurricane Larry where there were no ambulances available to respond to emergency calls, but said it was too dangerous for them to venture out in the storm.
The department has added eight paramedics in the Eastern Health region, along with a holding room and "buddy system" to reduce offload delays. Haggie said the department is working to add paramedics, and is making arrangements to make sure ambulances are not occupied with elective patient transfers.
NAPE wants the Department of Health to publish red alerts publicly. Haggie said the department is looking at publishing those statistics, along with statistics about wait times for tests and in emergency rooms.
Earle said the situation in the province's emergency health care system has gotten so bad that some paramedics have given up all together.
"They don't get to retire. They just burned out before the career ends and they end up somewhere else."