Minister of Health and Social Services Julie Green has apologized for the pending closure of Stanton Territorial Hospital’s obstetrics unit.
In a speech to the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday, Dec. 1, Green acknowledged the difficulties caused by the closure of obstetrics services at the Yellowknife hospital.
“Even with support and best efforts from NTHSSA, I know that these are not the circumstances that families wanted, and I am sorry we are not able to live up to their expectations,” she said.
Green said the Department had been working to recruit new nurses, including by advertising the openings nationwide and by hiring an external agency in October. However, due to the nationwide demand for nurses, only one new nurse had been hired since June, and the external staffing agency had only attracted three more who had not yet begun work.
“I thank the staff in the obstetrics unit who stepped up in response to a call to pick up shifts, yet NTHSSA was not able to cover more than a quarter of all shifts in December, which simply was not enough to support the normal labour and delivery service,” said Green.
Last month, the Department announced that expectant mothers who were scheduled to give birth at Stanton between Dec. 10 and Feb. 21 would instead be relocated to Edmonton due to short staffing at the Yellowknife facility. Green said that for the 71 clients who had to be relocated to Edmonton, 31 families had insurance through their employer, 26 qualify for public coverage, and seven will have their copay waived and expenses partially covered due to low income. Thirteen families are considered high-income but can have their copay waived if they can demonstrate that the relocation is a significant financial burden.
Green said the Department is in direct contact with the affected families to address individual needs, and with health services in Edmonton to prepare for the arrival of the expectant mothers and their families.
Green also acknowledged the low morale that contributed to the staffing shortage. She said both the department and the health authority are reviewing policies on pay, time off and workload, with the aim of both retaining existing staff and attracting new nurses from elsewhere in the country.
“These are difficult times for the patients who are now being asked to deliver their babies in Edmonton, and for the staff in the obstetrics unit,” said Green. “I want to assure Members that I, the authority and the department are all committed to moving quickly to address the underlying issues that have led to this situation and will continue to update you on our progress.”
At a virtual press conference on Wednesday, joined by NWT Health and Social Services Authority CEO Kim Riles and NWT Health and Social Services board chairman Jim Antoine, Green reiterated that the hospital would not be facing any further unit closures. “We feel confident that we are good to go to keep services operational at Stanton throughout the holiday,” she said.
However, Riles acknowledged that the situation could change “with just a couple of staff departures or casual contract cancellations.”
She said the hospital is operating with a baseline vacancy of 22 per cent for nursing positions.
Riles said the challenges faced by Stanton are system-wide: across the Northwest Territories, six health facilities are operating on reduced services, and four are operating on emergency services.
However, she said she is confident that in February Stanton’s obstetrics unit will be able to “at a minimum, resume whole services…” both because of new hires that are coming on board and because of “a flurry of recruitment activity for short-term staff to supplement our regular staff.”
Green said the department is not considering retro-active pandemic pay for nurses starting in March 2020, since their current contract provides a 1.5-per-cent salary increase for the previous fiscal year and the current one. However, the department is looking into other ways to compensate nurses.