Money alone will not solve the problems of the health system

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“Right now the government’s solution to solving the backlog is to…whip the horses – just beat the horses harder and get everyone to work harder, and do more and expand the surgical slots and everything that kind of stuff. But it’s not fundamentally rethinking our health care system. It’s really about applying the same old remedies. I think there needs to be some sort of deep structural overhaul of how we provide health care.

— Gregory Mason, associate professor of economics at the University of Manitoba

As part of its planned 2022 budget, the Stefanson government has signaled to Manitobans its intention to “loosen the purse strings” and pump more money into health care, while offering protections against price hikes. of inflation.

For example, last week Premier Heather Stefanson pledged $15 million for personal care homes in what she called a “pre-budget” announcement, while also telling the Legislature about other health care measures reportedly in today’s budget documents.

Over the past few years, as the Free Press noted this week, COVID-19 has taken the lives of several personal care homes across the province. During the second wave of the virus, a private care home required ambulances to be called as patients were rapidly deteriorating.

And in the third wave, dozens of hospitalized patients had to be airlifted to intensive care units outside Manitoba to free up beds because hospital intensive care units were overstretched to handle them.

At some point in January of this year, Hillcrest Place personal care home reportedly had the third highest number of COVID-19 cases of any PCH in the province, with 36 confirmed cases – one staff member and 35 residents . And outbreaks have been declared in several nursing homes across western Manitoba over the past month, so it’s clear the situation has been difficult for health care providers and their patients across the province.

But there are other issues facing health care in Manitoba besides viral outbreaks in nursing homes and hospitals, although they are related.

Over the weekend, The Sun reported that at least one in five nursing positions at Prairie Mountain Health remain vacant, even as the province pays more expensive agency nurses from private companies.

According to documents obtained by the Manitoba NDP through an access to information request and released Friday, as of January 31, there was a 22% vacancy rate for registered nurse positions in Prairie Mountain Health.

At the Brandon Regional Health Center alone, the vacancy rate is over 17% with 70 vacant positions. The Fairview Personal Care Home has a nursing vacancy rate of 22%.

A simple online search of the Prairie Mountain Health careers link shows that there are over 350 positions currently open for full-time, part-time and casual nursing positions, including licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, certified registered nurses, community health nurses and clinics. resource nurses. And that doesn’t include all the other open positions for clerks, psychologists, cooks, dietary aides, orderlies, home care workers, clerks, speech therapists, respiratory therapists – the list seems endless. .

A separate document provided to The Sun by the NDP shows the province spent $7 million to hire private nurses to fill the void in the regional health authority between September 2021 and January 2022. At Brandon Regional Health Center , $54,296.19 was spent on private agency nurses. . In Fairview, PMH spent $507,121.07 on private nurses during the same period. This is a surprising figure, given the number of vacancies.

Prairie Mountain Health CEO Brian Schoonbaert said the practice of hiring nurses from private agencies to temporarily fill vacancies is not new — nor are the difficulties faced by rural RHAs like Prairie Mountain to fill these positions. And, of course, that’s completely correct; We’ve written several op-eds over the years about the number of PMH vacancies, and the numbers only seem to get worse with each passing year.

But we have to ask ourselves if part of the problem is not competition from the private sector, namely the very private agencies that are hired by the RHAs to fill these vacancies. For example, a job description on Indeed.com yesterday for retired/semi-retired nurses had some interesting wording:

“You tell us when you want to work. Never term. No minimum hours required. Keep your skills sharp while adopting a less demanding schedule. Keep doing what you love, but on your terms.”

As it faces a chronic shortage of nurses across the province, our health care system and its workplace staff are struggling not only with the stress caused by the pandemic, but also with the poor image of the workplace that makes part of the daily life of health professionals.

Some nurses are assigned to work when employees are sick or a storm hits, and there are usually not enough nurses in the field to do all the work. There is a reason that caregiver burnout is a real and ongoing problem.

And if private companies are pulling even a fraction of the necessary nurses from our public health care system, that’s a problem that won’t be solved by simply pumping government money into the system. What is needed is a concerted effort to make the workplace a more attractive working environment for staff.

Professor Mason is absolutely right: the Conservatives would be better served by seeking to overhaul and improve the way we deliver health care. As it stands, we are already spending money on agency nurses and creeping private care. Wouldn’t it be better to take that money and use it to make the public system a little healthier and more robust?

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