The Town of Bonavista is offering up its own signing bonuses and a plot of land to doctors who agree to practise in the community.
A new multimillion-dollar emergency department is almost ready to open, but a lack of doctors means the facility will be closed for most of the month. The Bonavista Peninsula Health Centre emergency room has faced rolling closures over the last year due to staffing shortages.
Bonavista Mayor John Norman called the closures stressful for the town and the region. The area's health-care struggles are undoing the hard work put in to build the rural community, he said.
"Anecdotally we very quickly added up seven people that have moved out of the community in a matter of five weeks based on lack of health care access," Norman said Thursday.
"That is a major concern for a town that feels it's a victory to move in a couple of dozen new residents every year while others are leaving. We received calls from people who were moving into Bonavista who are now cancelling those plans. It's really, really depressing."
Norman said it's not just the emergency room feeling the impact of missing doctors. He said the hospital's new chemotherapy unit and a dialysis unit — paid for with funds raised by the town and other communities in the region — are both closed as of Thursday.
The closest ER is about a 90-minute drive away.
"We're in a situation here now, in a region of over 8,000 people, and we basically have no emergency room coverage for a month," said Norman.
So town council has decided to offer signing bonuses to doctors to come to Bonavista, although they haven't decided on an official amount.
"We're talking tens of thousands and we're also going to hand over fully serviced building lots valued at $60,000 or $70,000. We'll hand it over for a dollar. This is where we are now."
Eliza Swyers, a longtime health advocate in Bonavista, said she's glad the town is stepping up but wonders why it should have to in the first place.
"Government should be doing this, the health authorities should be doing this, and not our local council and taxpayers having to do it out of fear," Swyers said.
"I am so disappointed and so disillusioned by our government. It almost makes me feel ashamed that we've come to this where we're kind of letting our government off the hook."
Norman said the town is sharing its plan with Central Health on Feb. 10 in hopes the health authority will offer up matching funds for the doctors who sign on.
LISTEN | Bonavista's mayor says the town is offering signing bonuses to doctors:
First of its kind, says health minister
Health Minister Tom Osborne said Bonavista isn't alone. Other municipalities throughout the province are "looking at creative ways" to attract and retain healthcare professionals, he said, and the provincial government has provided funding to Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador to work with communities to recruit health staff.
"When we recruit a health-care professional, really we need to be recruiting the family. If you have a spouse who is looking for employment, we need to help with that," said Osborne.
"The recruitment team that we are putting in the provincial health authority is look at the recruitment of the family, not just the recruitment of the individual, and municipalities can certainly play a role finding ways in helping recruit individuals."
Osborne said Bonavista's cash offer is the first of its kind he's heard of in the province so far.
"Municipalities are getting creative. It is a very, very competitive environment, not only in Newfoundland and Labrador, not only across Canada, but globally," he said.
"Communities are welcome to look at any initiative they want to undertake. The department and the health authorities, soon to be the provincial health authority, certainly look at recruitment and retention. We have invested about $30 million now on recruitment and retention."