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Federal nursing stations boost bonuses to try to fill positions, which are nearly 60 per cent vacant in Manitoba

Provincial health care system seeing more and longer service suspensions despite spending nearly three times as much on agency nurses last year than it did four years earlier.
nurse filling out paperwork Reza Estakhrian Getty Images
Federal nursing stations are boosting bonuses and the provincial government is spending more on agency nurses in response to ongoing labour shortages.

Higher recruitment and retention bonuses for nurses are coming next month as Indigenous Services Canada tries to deal with a nursing shortage that is leaving many of its remote First Nation nursing stations operating at or below minimum staffing levels and restricting access to patients who need emergency treatment only.

Meanwhile, in the provincial health care system, spending on agency nurses has nearly tripled in the past five years, according to information Shared Health gave to Global News.

Effective Sept. 1, full- and part-time ISC nurses will receive an initial recruitment allowance of $6,750, up from the current $2,250. The allowance provided after one year of employment will rise to $9,750 from $3,250 and the annual retention allowance will go from $5,500 to $16,500.

“This is an important step forward as we work to make sure we have a robust health care workforce for rural and remote nursing in Indigenous communities,” said ISC Minister Patty Hajdu in an Aug. 16 press release.

The tripling of allowances comes as vacancy rates at Manitoba’s 21 remote federal nursing stations approach 60 per cent, according to what their union’s president told the Winnipeg Free Press.

“These nurses don’t want to work in the conditions under which they are placed,” said Jennifer Carr, who heads Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

Northern Manitoba First Nations declared a health care emergency in the spring and reiterated in July that nursing shortage in their communities is alarming.

“I am gravely concerned to know or citizens may not be able to access medical care when it’s needed,” said Garrison Settee, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents two dozen First Nations in the province’s north.

Tataskweyak Cree Nation is one community that has had to deal with its nursing station being open for emergencies only.

“While these ISC-led nursing stations are currently operating at or slightly below minimum staffing levels, staffing is being reassessed on a daily basis,” said ISC spokesperson Kyle Fournier in an email to the Thompson Citizen, noting that ISC is also working with Shared Health Emergency Response Services and the Northern Regional Health Authority to improve timely transport of patients in need of care that they can’t receive in Tataskweyak or other First Nations, sometimes by using a helicopter air ambulance based in Thompson.

Fournier also said efforts are ongoing to attract more nurses.

“First Nations communities are in the same situation as many other health care providers across the country — there is a serious shortage of nurses and other medical professionals,” he said.

In the provincial health care system, which Carr said pays better than the federal government, some nurses are quitting their jobs to work for private nursing agencies or switching to part-time to maintain their benefits and seniority while doing most of their work through agencies.

The provincial government spent more than $40 million on agency nurses in 2021-22, Global News reports, up from $14 million in 2017-18.

In the north, agency nurse spending reached more than $10 million in 2021-22, and has risen every year since 2017-18. In the first quarter of the 2022-23 fiscal year, agency nurse spending in the NRHA was at more than $2 million, nearly as much as for the entire year of 2017-18.

Despite the rapidly rising agency nurse spending, however, provincial health care facilities, including many in Northern Manitoba, are experiencing frequent staffing shortages that result in limited service or temporary closures.

The NRHA announced Aug. 19 that walk-in clinics in Thompson will not be taking place until at least Sept. 6. The temporary closure of the Leaf Rapids Health Centre emergency department that began July 13 is now continuing indefinitely, after having earlier been predicted to last until the end of August. In Snow Lake, the NRHA closed the health centre inpatient beds on Aug. 18 after not having had any admissions over the previous six weeks.

In late July, inpatient beds were closed at the Lynn Lake Hospital and the patients in them transferred to Flin Flon. One of those transferred has since died, while others are cut off from family and friends who are unable to visit.

Fred Salter told CTV News that he can’t afford to see his wife Alice, who he’s been married to for 61 years and who has dementia, very often because of the long distance to travel from Lynn Lake to Flin Flon, an eight-hour drive, half of it on an intermittently paved highway. Previously, when she was in Lynn Lake, he would visit her every day.