The Yukon government and the Yukon Hospital Corporation will create 10 new continuing-care beds in the Thomson Centre and expand home care in the territory to alleviate the strain on the Whitehorse General Hospital.
Four additional continuing-care beds are also planned for McDonald Lodge in Dawson City, as are four holding beds in the Whitehorse hospital. The government also plans to have continuing care staff support long-term care patients in the hospital, to reduce the workload shouldered by nurses and other hospital staff.
The announcement comes after Dr. David Storey publicly decried the lack of available beds and understaffing at the hospital in a letter published in June.
The heart of the issue is a shortage of continuing-care beds in the territory, meaning beds at the hospital are often taken up by patients needing long-term care.
According to the hospital corporation, average occupancy at the Whitehorse hospital was 94 per cent in the first quarter of 2016 and the hospital was at capacity about 20 per cent of the time last year. Since last October, roughly 43 per cent of the hospital’s beds have been occupied by people who should be elsewhere, chiefly in continuing care.
Now, the government and the hospital corporation aim to have a 10-bed pod in the Thomson Centre ready for residents to move in by early October. The beds would be a temporary solution until the Whistle Bend continuing care facility opens in a couple of years.
“While we wait for this facility to open, our community has leaned on the hospital and its incredible staff to fill the short-term gap. We know that that has to change,” said Premier Darrell Pasloski during an announcement on Monday.
The government also plans to extend home care hours during evenings and on weekends, and to open four more beds at McDonald Lodge in Dawson City. Also, continuing care staff will provide some programming for long-term care patients in the hospital, to reduce the strain on hospital staff.
Four holding beds will also be created in the hospital for patients awaiting admission.
“While these will not add directly to our bed count, they mean fewer people will be held in emergency while they await admission to a bed in the hospital,” said Craig Tuton, chair of the Yukon Hospital Corporation’s board of trustees.
The government has budgeted up to $5 million for the plan.
Health Minister Mike Nixon said his department recently hired three or four new home care staff. He said the department will “reorganize” those staff to provide the extra evening and weekend support.
Additional continuing care staff for the Thomson Centre and McDonald Lodge will be hired, Nixon said, and could be transferred to the Whistle Bend facility when it opens.
“What we’re doing, essentially, is we’re starting our recruitment and hiring campaign now for Whistle Bend,” he said.
The 10 rooms to be renovated in the Thomson Centre were initially designed to house long-term care residents when the facility was built in 1993. But when the centre was renovated and reopened in 2011, the rooms were designated as office space.
Now, the people using those offices will be relocated and the rooms will be refurbished with beds and washrooms.
Last month, a spokesperson for the hospital corporation cautioned that opening rooms in the Thomson Centre could take a year or more and “may not be feasible.”
But Tuton said the plan now is simply to bring the rooms up to a safe standard, not to the standard of the future Whistle Bend facility. For instance, these beds won’t have overhead lifts, though a portable lift will be available.
“The pressures that we face today are immediate and so therefore we need to come up with some immediate solutions,” he said. “And those immediate solutions are going to allow us to bring these beds up to a lower standard than what continuing care standards are.”
The contract for the renovations has yet to be awarded.
NDP health critic Jan Stick praised the government’s decision to open beds at the Thomson Centre, though she called the announcement a “last-ditch effort.”
“We’ve been bringing this up for four years,” she said. “It just seems … we’ve waited a long time to look for solutions, even though they were suggested.”
It does seem the government didn’t intend to do any of this before Storey’s letter was published, since the $5 million wasn’t included in this year’s budget. Asked for an explanation, Nixon would only say that pressures in the hospital change “on an hourly basis” and every jurisdiction faces similar challenges.
But if the Yukon Party government can be seen as acting on this now, it may take some wind out of the NDP and Liberal sails before the coming election. It may also shine a more favourable light on the 150-bed Whistle Bend facility, which has been widely criticized for its size and location far from downtown Whitehorse.
Pasloski was quick to make political hay of the announcement on Monday, pointing to a recent petition signed by NDP and Liberal candidates and potential candidates that demanded work stop on the construction of the Whistle Bend facility until public concerns are addressed.
“The Whistle Bend facility has been attacked and derided by political opponents since we announced it,” he said. “But as today’s announcement demonstrates, our government has never wavered.”
Liberal candidate Tamara Goeppel, who signed the petition, concedes that the Whistle Bend facility will almost certainly go ahead as planned, as does Stick.
And they offered few alternatives to the solutions the government is proposing for the hospital.
“The fact that the 10 beds can now be made available is great news on the short term,” Goeppel said. “I’m just questioning why did it take five years to do this?”
Contact Maura Forrest at firstname.lastname@example.org