Hundreds of nurses and other front-line workers rallied at the Manitoba Legislature Wednesday about cuts they say could "compromise safe patient care" in the province.

"We want the government to put patients first and focus on making investments and improvements in health care," Manitoba Nurses Union president Sandi Mowat said in a statement.

Manitoba Nurses Union protests health-care cuts

About 600 nurses protested outside the Manitoba Legislature Wednesday about cuts to health care. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Protesters, including about 600 nurses, gathered on the steps of the legislative building to oppose the provincial government's plans to close three emergency rooms and trim the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's budget by $83 million.

Health agencies and Crown corporations have all been ordered to cut 15 per cent of management positions, among other cost-saving measures to the health-care system.

Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen confirmed Tuesday the province will also axe a program aimed at luring more doctors to rural and remote parts of the province.

The nurses union, which represents 12,000 employees across the province, fears the cuts will affect nurses' ability to deliver quality care to patients.

"I don't understand how decreasing the number of emergency rooms is going to decrease wait times," said Mowat.

"We have to see the concrete plan … where are all these people going to go?"

Sandi Mowat

Sandi Mowat, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union, says nurses and other front line staff were never consulted about the proposed changes to emergency departments at three Winnipeg hospitals. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Mowat says closing ERs and moving departments to different locations will cause people to have to travel farther to get the care they need.

She says patients will then be put at risk again if they need to be transferred to other facilities to get other types of specialty care.

She says nurses and front-line workers were never consulted about these changes.

"Step back, and do some consultation with the frontline nurses to ask them," said Mowat.

"We agree that the system needs work, we agree that there are inefficiencies. We can help them figure out what those inefficiencies are. Nurses know a lot about patient care and no one asked us," she said.

Mowat says the union wants the government to take another look at the proposed changes and look at how they will affect patients, rather than focusing solely on cost saving.

Signs

The Manitoba Nurses Union says 600 nurses attended the rally to protest cuts to health care they say will put patients at risk. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said he has an obligation to work to reduce wait times. That means making the tough decisions now to ensure a better future, he added. 

"My hope of course is that in the years ahead that people will look back and say, 'Was it easy? No. Was it challenging? It was. But was it the right thing to do? Absolutely,'" he said.

Premier Brian Pallister also said he understands why people are concerned about changes to health care, but added they shouldn't be afraid.

"[I understand] at the start of any process of change that people are concerned and I accept that. And I accept the challenge of making sure that we get through that," he said.

Pallister said front-line workers are right to ask questions and his government will try to answer them.

Distance matters

Katie Bryant, an emergency room nurse at Victoria General Hospital, says patients will continue to receive quality care from nurses, but where they get that care will have an impact on them.

"People with life-threatening illnesses and life-threatening problems are going to have to be travelling further to hospitals to get the care that they need and that's unsafe and it's putting people at risk unnecessarily," said Bryant.

She says where patients get treated not only affects them but their families as well.

"I wish that they would have consulted more with front line staff and more with people that are there every single day, triaging these patients, taking care of these patients on wards, dealing with families, who are now potentially going to have to travel even further to visit loved ones," she said.

Katie Bryant

Katie Bryant is an emergency room nurse at the Victoria General Hospital, which is slated to be turned into an urgent care facility. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Ervin Bartha came to the rally because he wants to show support for the nurses. He says he's not with any of the unions that attended the rally today, but came as a concerned citizen.

"I've heard that they are going to close three emergency rooms in the periphery of the city. It's going to mean that people are going to die. People are going to die needlessly because they can't get to emergency rooms fast enough," said Bartha.

Bartha says he saw first hand the importance of having a hospital within a short distance when his mother suffered a heart attack and timing was critical in her survival.

"After they had stabilized her, the attending doctor told me that had it even been five minutes longer getting her there, she wouldn't have made it," he said.

"I just feel that this kind of fiscal manoeuvre is not going to help people who are in critical condition. I think it's going to cost people their lives."

Emergency rooms being closed in Winnipeg

Seven Oaks Hospital in the north, Concordia Hospital in the northeast and Victoria General Hospital in the south will become community hospitals with no emergency rooms once the health system changes take place.

Full coverage of health cuts in Manitoba