Province reveals $200M health-care action plan

The province is looking to resuscitate Manitoba’s beleaguered health-care system with a new $200-million action plan announced Thursday.

The strategy aims to increase human resources and end mandated overtime with the hiring of 2,000 additional health-care workers. Another goal of the plan is to improve personnel recruitment, training and retention through the expansion of Manitoba’s health-care programs and removing barriers that prevent health-care professionals from practising here, Premier Heather Stefanson and Health Minister Audrey Gordon said Thursday.

However, the Manitoba Nurses Union and the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union are worried that it won’t be enough.

While the announcement is a good first step toward improving the “terrible” conditions Manitoba nurses face, said MNU president Darlene Jackson, there’s still plenty of work to do.

“We must not lose sight of the fact that the culture needs an infusion of hope, and that great leadership is going to be key in making that happen,” she said.

The MGEU agreed the province’s announcement is encouraging, but president Kyle Ross said it doesn’t consider health-care workers who aren’t doctors or nurses.

“Quality health care requires a full team of health-care professionals,” Ross told the Sun. These professionals are facing serious staffing challenges, and Ross is calling on the province to include efforts to support and retain all health workers into its new action plan.

Manitobans and Canadians expect leaders to collaborate to solve important health-care issues, Stefanson said in her opening remarks at the Health Sciences Centre’s Women’s Hospital in Winnipeg. The federal government, she said, knows that Canadians are suffering through pandemic backlogs and need a new health-care funding partnership to ensure the sustainability of the health-care system.

For two and a half years Canada’s premiers have been petitioning for a national conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discuss and address the health-care needs of Canadians. Earlier this month, premiers once again called on Ottawa to increase the federal health transfer from 22 per cent to 35.

“Unfortunately, the federal government has so far failed to act on this critical issue,” Stefanson said. “There was no commitment to any federal fiscal update to increase the federal share of health funding and despite multiple previous commitments and clear assurances, the prime minister is still refusing to meet with Canada’s premiers.”

Thursday’s announcement comes less than a month after Canada’s premiers launched an advertising campaign blaming the Ottawa’s lack of health-care funding for the exodus of doctors and nurses across the country.

The office of federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.

While Hannah Holt, community outreach manager at Westman Immigrant Services, couldn’t provide the specifics on how many professionally trained health-care workers have moved to Westman in recent years, she has seen a number of nurses from the Philippines have to take their training all over again before being allowed to practise here, including some who had previously been working in the fast-food service industry.

“That was their landing job and their survival job to get their pathway to permanent residency,” Holt said. “We had a lot of nurses … doing the rotating licensed practical nursing program. They couldn’t just do a quick course; they had to go back to school.”

The province’s idea to remove training barriers for health-care professionals by modernizing its memorandum of understanding with the Philippines and enabling recruitment from that country is hopeful, Holt said.

“We would welcome anything, if they’re looking to speed things up or reduce the barriers for newcomers.”

Gordon said the province’s investment sends a strong message to Manitobans that the government is listening to their concerns. She also acknowledged the “immense pressure” health-care workers have been under since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged.

As previously reported, preliminary results from a three-year study of 118 doctors, conducted in partnership with Prairie Mountain Health and advocacy group Doctors Manitoba, suggested that half of PMH’s 271 physicians are near or already burning out.

Preliminary data from that study indicated 49 per cent of respondents reported experiencing high or very high levels of burnout. One of the driving factors was reported to be excessive job demands, such as working more than 40 hours a week (60 per cent reported) and being on call for more than 60 hours per week (52 per cent reported). Mistreatment by patients, colleagues and workplace authority was also listed as problems physicians must deal with on the job.

When it comes to excessive overtime hours, Gordon said she’s asked the chief executive officer of each regional health authority to establish a plan to reduce overtime requests

“This is the right thing to do,” she said.

The province will provide financial incentives to encourage staff to work weekend shifts, Gordon said, and will offer full-time incentives for existing staff. This includes an additional hourly premium for weekend hours worked as well as a new weekend position for individuals who work straight weekends.

Rural communities have been losing doctors at an alarming rate, and rural emergency rooms have either closed or had their hours cut. The situation, according to Candace Bradshaw, president of Doctors Manitoba, is “very scary” and a reflection of the province’s health-care crisis.

Emergency rooms in Carberry, Minnedosa and Glenboro were all scheduled to close or operate at reduced hours due to staffing concerns in early September. Several communities continue to have no emergency room services at all, including Shoal Lake, Treherne and Winnipegosis. From Nov. 14-20, Carberry, Deloraine, Grandview, Melita and Minnedosa will have no emergency room services on the weekend, whereas Roblin’s emergency room will be closed Monday to Friday, but open Saturday and Sunday.

The situation was much more dire this past summer, when even more emergency rooms were shuttered, Bradshaw said.

“We have never encountered a summer like we just did when it comes to rural and northern Manitoba. We have never seen so many red flags go up … we have never seen this many [emergency rooms] have to shut down or limit their hours or even close wards.”

Though she’s hopeful about the province’s new commitments to health care, Bradshaw said she’s eager to find out more about how it will work in real time.

“We need more details but are encouraged and looking forward to collaborating with the province to keep giving them our ideas and suggestions.”

A spokesperson for Prairie Mountain Health said the regional health authority is “pleased” to work alongside the province on its action plan.

“We strongly support the three pillars of the action plan … [and] we look forward to further reviewing details contained within the initiative and are committed to working towards meeting the goals and objectives that were listed within the action plan released earlier today,” the spokesperson told the Sun in an email.

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun