Nurses' union calls Winnipeg hospital shakeup a 'front-line service cut'

WRHA wants a further 15% reduction in ER wait times

A cloud of uncertainty hangs over health sector unions after the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority announced it is closing half of its emergency departments.

Following the news that three emergency departments will be closed and repurposed, union officials have raised concern that services will be impacted and jobs may be lost in the shuffle.

Sandi Mowat, the president of the Manitoba Nurses Union, told CBC News she fears the changes will put added pressure on nurses.

"I would say that the nurses are already working short-staffed (and) being asked to do more with less and now there's going to be increased pressure on those remaining ERs," Mowat said.

Mowat said she has been assured that "there is work for all if the nurses want to stay," but considers the decision a cut to frontline services.

"I'm still worried about the impact that this is going to have on the city and people's ability to access services," Mowat said.

"You know I would argue, really this is a front-line service cut and you know that there has to be things put in place to make sure that people are actually still getting healthcare."

Unions left in the dark

The announcement Friday will see emergency services consolidated to three hospitals: Health Sciences Centre, St. Boniface and Grace Hospital.

Seven Oaks and Victoria's emergency departments will be converted to 24-hour urgent care centres, while Concordia's will be repurposed for rehab services and transitional care.

The objective is to streamline and concentrate resources, rather than have them spread over multiple sites, explained WRHA president and CEO Milton Sussman at Friday's news conference at St. Boniface Hospital. Winnipeg hospitals have some of the longest ER wait times in the country, according to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information. 

The hope is that by concentrating services and reallocating bed space, the city will be able to tackle the issue, Sussman said.

Health officials with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority were unable to guarantee jobs will not be lost following Friday's announcement. A news release issued by the WRHA stated there will "be jobs for everybody who wants one."

A spokeswoman for the WRHA told CBC News Friday afternoon, "we anticipate job loss to be minimal."

Mowat and Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, both felt there was little consultation from front-line workers prior to the announcement.

The MGEU represents over 16,000 workers in the health sector, including paramedics, home care workers and support staff.

Gawronsky said none of their members are sure what this shift will mean for their job security, the service they provide or what the future holds.

"There is no details of what is coming and that is biggest concern about what is going on," she said. "We have no idea how many of our members will be affected by this and my colleagues in other unions have been asking the same questions."

Opposition call the announcement 'devastating' 

Meanwhile, the Opposition NDP called the decision "devastating news for families."

Matt Wiebe, the NDP's health critic, said his constituents in Concordia are shocked. 

"When you close an emergency room in a community, that affects the care they receive," he said.

"We are worried about the cost of the this and the impacts on jobs."

The report that first recommended the repurposing of emergency departments was commissioned by the NDP. Wiebe said he believes there is room to find efficiencies in the system, but closing ERs is not the answer.