Opposition health critic Michele Beaton told the P.E.I. Legislature Tuesday there were five ambulance shifts over the weekend where the vehicles remained parked because there were no paramedics available to staff them.
That situation places paramedics on the growing list of health-care workers stretched too thin across the province, together with doctors, nurses, resident care workers and others. The shortage of staff has shut down hospital and long-term care beds and jammed up emergency rooms.
"We were short five trucks on the weekend," Beaton said during question period Tuesday, referring to the number of ambulance shifts that weren't able to be staffed. "My understanding is we don't have shifts filled for tomorrow. Upwards of six trucks tomorrow will not be on the road."
According to its website, Island EMS has six ambulance bases spread across the Island which are supposed to be staffed around the clock.
But with shifts being missed, Beaton said there are times one ambulance stationed in the middle of the province, in Hunter River, is meant to respond to calls from O'Leary in the west to Souris in the east. The union backed up that claim.
"My concern is that the ambulance isn't going to be where it needs to be when the emergency is happening," said Beaton in an interview after question period.
"That is what the primary contract with Medavie is … to ensure that our emergency services, our ambulances, are available for whenever emergencies happen."
Company acknowledges 'labour challenges'
"As healthcare organizations nationwide experience employee shortages, Island EMS has also faced labour challenges," a spokesperson for Island EMS's parent company Medavie told CBC News via email.
"We're actively working on a recruitment campaign and have been working closely with community partners to help attract healthcare professionals to the Island."
The union representing paramedics has been raising concerns for years around staffing levels, while government has reached new agreements with Island EMS and its parent company Medavie Health Services to add more duties and create more roles for paramedics.
"If you're taking from a system that's already fragile and critical, it's just making it worse," said Jason Woodbury, president of CUPE local 3324.
"It is a regular occurrence to have ambulances unstaffed now."
Opposition questions additional contracts
The Dennis King government recently signed a contract with Medavie Health Services to manage the province's mobile mental health response service, which incorporates six positions for paramedics.
Another contract to assist with COVID-19 testing includes a dozen paramedic positions, and a contract for two more positions is meant as a stopgap to address a lack of nurses available to work in the emergency department at Prince County Hospital in Summerside.
"Why is Medavie being awarded a new health contract when they're struggling to fulfil aspects of their existing contract?" asked Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly during question period.
During the fall sitting, the Liberals have come forward with details obtained through freedom of information on 700 vacant health-care positions within provincial Crown corporation Health PEI.
As a private company, Medavie's vacancies aren't included in that total.
But the vacancies within the larger health-care system have also impacted ambulance services, with paramedic crews delivering patients to emergency rooms sometimes tied up for hours because there are no free hospital beds to admit them.
Hospital beds, in turn, are filling up because long-term care facilities have shut down beds for lack of staff.
"The whole system is integrated," said Health Minister Ernie Hudson. "We have to rely on our doctors, we have to rely on our nurses, on our LPNs, RCWs, paramedics.
"We have to look at all different areas of the system when we are looking at improvements and staffing to make sure ... that we are providing those services that are needed."
Contract headed to arbitration
Beaton told the assembly that paramedics on P.E.I. are paid "several dollars per hour" less in wages than their counterparts in Nova Scotia.
Woodbury said for the past two years his union has been urging government to develop a retention strategy so it doesn't lose the paramedics it has to other jurisdictions.
He said the union stepped away from negotiations on a new contract in the spring following an offer from Island EMS he described as "insulting," and said arbitration is set to begin in December.