Health and Social Service Minister Julie Green was the target of many questions in the Legislative Assembly Tuesday following the recent decision to send expecting mothers to Edmonton to give birth.
On Nov. 22, the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority announced that due to lack of staff, the hospital unit for delivering babies will be suspended between Dec. 10 and Feb. 21.
Mothers delivering between those dates are being asked to travel to the Alberta capital.
Katrina Nokleby, MLA for Great Slave, Caitlin Cleveland, MLA for Kam Lake, Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, and Lesa Semmler, MLA for Inuvik-Twin Lakes all spoke to the issue into the evening of Nov. 23.
Green said she found out about the staffing issue on Nov. 19.
“We had a block of unfilled shifts on the obstetrics ward and we tried a number of ways to fill those shifts,” she said in response to a question from Nokleby. “But finally we could only get it down to 46 vacant shifts and at that point, we had to make a decision about what to do with people going forward from Dec. 10.”
Green said the hospital was expecting between 80 and 90 NWT births between Dec. 10 and Feb. 21 in addition to between 25 and 30 from the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut.
“So the volume was simply too great for the number of staff that we had and so we have arranged this alternative to go to Edmonton,” she said. “But let me say it is not ideal.”
Since January the department has been conducting exit interviews with nurses. Green said the GNWT has hired every Aurora College nursing graduate in the last year, used agencies for locums, attended career fairs and advertised job postings in an effort to staff up.
“I feel confident that the Health Authority has tried every way to mitigate this,” she said. “I have heard people say that the work environment is the problem. I’m not clear what that means and I’m looking forward to hearing what that means so that we can address whatever that is.”
Cleveland pressed Green on what medical travel benefits are available. She said the amounts that the GNWT is offering don’t go far enough for some of her constituents. She said the announcement by the department is an emotional and financial shock to families.
“I have, for example, in my constituency … people who now have weeks of notice that they will be expected to travel,” she said, noting some are self-employed. “They do not have a support system in town where they can simply leave older children. They do not work for the government. They are not Indigenous and eligible for support through (non-insured health benefits). So right off the bat there is a definite significant financial burden.”
Green said the medical travel benefit is only supposed to assist young parents with access to services, not cover the whole cost. However, the GNWT is providing some financial help with a support worker to ensure mothers can stay in proper hotel accommodations. Travelling together, a mother and support-care worker can get $100 a night at a hotel and $36 for food between the two of them.
The minister said that the obstetrics team is calling expecting parents individually for case management and helping with birth travel plans.
“What we want is to help them organize and plan their trip and to make this experience as least disruptive as possible,” she said.