Health Minister Pauline Frost in Whitehorse on Dec. 20, 2018. Frost was pressed during question period on Oct. 15 regarding staffing levels of nurses throughout the territory. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Liberals grilled over nursing staff levels

Hospital corporation spokesperson says nothing is unusual

Following a letter sent to some Yukon Hospital Corporation (YHC) staff about the potential to force some employees to relocate to different hospitals, the focus has shifted to possible nursing shortages across the territory.

There were 20.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) nursing vacancies — 18 in Whitehorse, one each in Watson Lake and Haines Junction and 0.5 in Old Crow, according to a letter from Health Minister Pauline Frost to the official Opposition on Aug. 29.

In a written statement Oct. 15, Matthew Davidson, spokesperson with the YHC said there are 6.75 FTE vacancies at Whitehorse General Hospital, 3.9 in Watson Lake and 1.9 in Dawson City.

On Oct. 14, CBC North published a story about an internal YHC letter revealing staff may have to work from other locations.

A day later during question period, Patti McLeod, health critic for the Yukon Party, asked Frost what she’s doing to ensure nursing positions are filled.

“The Yukon Hospital Corporation takes the lead on their negotiations with their union and with their staff and we ensure that they effectively deliver the supports that they’re obligated to under our transfer payment agreement, as the member opposite well knows,” Frost said. “We do work with the hospital and we do know that Yukoners deserve the best possible care and we will ensure that it continues to evolve.”

The YHC letter was sent to Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada union members. Employees who are part of the union include registered nurses, pharmacists and social workers.

Following question period, reporters asked Frost how many nursing vacancies there are in the territory. She couldn’t answer this. She called the question “prescribed.”

She said, health centres “are appropriately staffed and we have the staff complement that we need. I would suggest there’s always a vacancy.”

Davidson said any vacancies will be filled within about 30 days.

Asked why the directive was sent to staff, he said, “Yukoners expect hospital care to be available when and where they need it. In the event any employee was ever temporarily assigned to work in a different headquarters area, which would only be done in extenuating circumstances when we have no alternative, it would be done to ensure operational requirements are met at all three hospitals.”

On Oct. 15, Frost said no relocations have occurred.

NDP Leader Kate White told reporters YHC might not be running as efficiently as it should be.

“I think burnout is high. I think overtime is high and it’s not unusual for them to bring in agency nurses. I know we haven’t been fully staffed for a while,” she said.

She called possible relocations “a serious situation.”

McLeod said there were “significant” staffing shortages in the maternity ward over the summer.

“As a result, the Liberal government resorted to flying in nurses from outside of Yukon on a rotational basis and compensating them with a pay premium above the rates provided to nurses who live in Whitehorse,” she said, asking how many from Outside were flown in to compensate and what measures are being undertaken going forward.

Frost didn’t answer the question.

“In extenuating circumstances,” she said, “they do look for alternatives to meet the mandate that they’ve been given, and that is to ensure that we have the right complement of staff.”

In a written statement, Davidson said there’s a full complement of maternity nurses at the Whitehorse General Hospital.

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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