The Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/CUPE is calling for a significant cash injection from the province to address what it terms a hospital crisis in the provine and in Sudbury.
According to a new report, Health Sciences North in Sudbury needs 104 more beds and 1,007 staff over the next four years. Those numbers represent an equivalent to $20.4 million in additional funding per year over the four-year term, an amount that doesn’t take inflation into account.
In North Bay, an extra 90 beds and 470 staff are needed over the next four years.
The report entitled, Ontario’s Hospital Crisis: No Capacity, No Plan, No End includes data from Statistics Canada and the Canadian Institute for Health Information and paints a disturbing picture of the current health care situation in Ontario.
According to the report, over the next four years, to address the aging and growing population, the real need in Ontario is an extra 60,000 hospital staff and more than 8,000 beds, representing an extra 1.25 billion a year in additional funding.
From the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to rolling emergency room closures in rural communities, increased surgical wait times and hallway medicine, the current funding for Ontario’s health-care system is inadequate and unsustainable in wake of a growing and aging population, said Doug Allan, a researcher with CUPE, and Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/CUPE, who were in Sudbury on Friday to speak to the report.
'Hallway medicine' a problem in Sudbury
“Sudbury is one of the worst cases in terms of hallway medicine in the province,” said Hurley. “Unfortunately, it has been consistent for a long period of time. It’s building on a budget base which has significantly fewer staff relative to population, even compared to its peers in Ontario.” Hurley said the shortage in beds and staff at HSN are a “partial explanation for the hallway medicine, which is really out of control in Sudbury.”
The Star contacted Health Sciences North but did not receive a comment by press time.
However, addressing the staffing shortage isn’t as simple as a pledge to hire more staff, said Allan and Hurley. Staff feel demoralized and are burnt out, with many leaving the profession or working out of province because of job dissatisfaction and low compensation.
As such, they said the province needs a real recruitment and retention strategy to address the high staff vacancy rate and increase staffing levels.
“On a per capita basis, hospitals in Ontario are dramatically understaffed,” said Allan.
If Ontario had the same staffing capacity as the other provinces and territories, that would mean another 33,778 full-time staff would be working here, he said. The majority of jobs experiencing those deficits include nursing inpatient services, support and other diagnostic and therapeutic services.
Pay, staffing not keeping up
Hospital staffing in Ontario has not improved in recent years, but has worsened, said Allan. Employment increased by 0.4 per cent per year over the last three years since COVID, which, according to the report, is a “shockingly small increase” considering the burden of the pandemic and long COVID on the health-care system. The report also noted a decline in staffing in nursing and residential care.
Compensation for staff is moving like a “ski slope downwards”, said Allan. Employee compensation as a percentage of total hospital spending in Ontario has decreased from 64.3 per cent in 2005-06 to 59.4 per cent in 2020-21.
“This is not something inherent to hospitals, it is something that is exclusive to Ontario,” said Allan. In contrast, compensation has increased to 67.1 per cent in other provinces.
Bill 124, which capped nurse and other public sector workers’ salaries in Ontario to one per cent a year, made it difficult to recruit staff. And although the bill was struck down, the province is appealing the decision, which could sour the situation even more, he said.
In an act of good faith, the province should drop that appeal, suggested Hurley.
Province defends record
For its part, the province said since 2018 it has increased its health care budget by more than $16 billion, grown its health care workforce by more than 63,000 nurses and 8,000 new physicians, and created 3,500 hospital beds.
“But we know more needs to be done, that’s why launched Your Health,” said a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health in a written statement to The Star.
Your Health is an online portal that connects Ontario residents with health care services close to home.
Hannah Jensen, press secretary to the Health Minister Sylvia Jones, pointed out that Jones was in Sudbury last month to announce three new Ontario health teams in the North to improve access to care.
During her visit, Jones also toured HSN and met with leadership team to discuss how to work together to connect Sudbury patients with high-quality care closer to home.
“We have launched the largest medical school expansion in 15 years, 44 new undergraduate and 63 new residency seats at NOSM, broken down barriers for internationally educated health-care workers to work in Ontario faster, while allowing health care workers registered in other provinces and territories to immediately start working in Ontario, removed financial barriers for nurses wanting to upskill and expanded the Learn and Stay grant which provides eligible students in nursing, paramedic and medical laboratory technologist programs with funding for tuition, books and other costs.
"College Boreal, Cambrian College and Laurentian University all have many programs now part of the Learn and Stay Grant,” Jensen wrote.
“Our government is expanding capacity across the province, getting shovels in the ground for 50 hospital developments over 10 years that will add over 3,000 beds, to connect Ontarians to the care they need now and into the future. We have worked with Health Sciences North adding hundreds of beds to the region since 2018.”
Still, Allan calls the province’s plan “utterly, totally, completely, inadequate” considering 3,000 beds a year over 10 years represents a 0.79 per cent increase per year in hospital beds, a plan that will never meet the anticipated 15 per cent population growth in the province.
In addition, communities in Northern communities are rapidly aging and the province’s plan falls short in addressing those demographics, he said.
The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.
Laura Stradiotto, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star