PEI

Province to renew ambulance contract for 1 year, Greens say it should be renegotiated

The Official Opposition is calling on the province to renegotiate its contract for ambulance services across the Island as P.E.I.'s health minister confirms that contract will be renewed for one year. 

Health minister acknowledges response times in some cases are too long

Health Minister Ernie Hudson says the province's current contract for ambulance services is set to expire on March 31, at which point it will be renewed for one year. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The Official Opposition is calling on the province to renegotiate its contract for ambulance services across the Island as P.E.I.'s health minister confirms that contract will be renewed for one year. 

The province's contract with Medavie Health Services, the company that runs ambulance services on P.E.I., began in 2006. On Tuesday, Health Minister Ernie Hudson said the contract is set to expire on March 31, at which point it will be renewed for one year. 

Hudson confirmed the contract renewal following question period in the P.E.I. legislature, where the Opposition raised several concerns about staffing shortages and coverage issues within ambulance care on the Island. Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker said paramedics have been strained for some time, with staffing levels often leaving only one ambulance to serve the Island. 

He referred to an incident last month when a man from western P.E.I. died after having a heart attack at his workplace while an ambulance took more than an hour to arrive from Summerside. Bevan-Baker said this is not an isolated incident and asked the health minister what his government was doing to stop it from happening again.

'We do know that we need to make changes to ensure that response times are improved upon,' said Minister of Health and Wellness Ernie Hudson. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

"Last week a personal friend of mine who also happens to live in Tignish and who also suffered a heart attack called me to say that they too had to wait an hour for an ambulance to arrive," he said. 

Bevan-Baker said his friend is now recovering.

"This clearly shows that these are not isolated or unusual incidents," he said. "How much longer will Islanders' lives be put at risk as the result of a company that regardless of the statistics that they provide to you or to Islanders are clearly failing to provide adequate service?" 

Greens say contract should be renegotiated 

Speaking in the legislative chamber, Hudson said response times in those cases were too high and unacceptable. 

"We do know that we need to make changes to ensure that response times are improved upon," Hudson said. 

He said the province is committed to looking at ways to improve the situation on P.E.I. for both paramedics and Islanders in need of care and his department is open to ideas, specifically from the sector about how to do that. 

"Everything is on the table, we need to look at ways to improve it, we need to look at meetings with our partners and having the discussions with them too and when I say partners I certainly mean paramedics," Hudson said. 

Green MLA Michele Beaton also raised the issue in the chamber and later told reporters she's heard from several paramedics who say staffing levels are often at a critical level. One of the biggest issues when it comes to retaining staff is low wages, she said. 

'There are things that government can do when they're negotiating a contract that would actually improve the work-life culture within health care,' said Green MLA Michele Beaton. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Beaton said she'd like to see the province renegotiate its contract with Medavie to address that challenge. She'd like government to push for higher wages for paramedics and also offer financial incentives to encourage paramedics to want to work and stay on P.E.I. 

"We have the ability to negotiate a contract that puts people first, that treats Islanders with the respect that they deserve. If you work in the front line of health care you should be afforded a living wage, you should not be forced to work overtime or feel guilty for taking vacation," Beaton said. 

"There are things that government can do when they're negotiating a contract that would actually improve the work-life culture within health care." 

She would also like to see the company pay penalties when there aren't enough paramedics to staff ambulance teams, something that doesn't exist within the current contract. 

Explore other options 

Hudson said the paramedics' union reached a new agreement concerning wages with the company last November.

CUPE Local 3324, which represents paramedics on P.E.I., ratified a new collective agreement in November that included a 7.75 per cent increase in pay over four years, with the terms retroactive to Dec. 31, 2018.

The last pay increase in the contract, which will kick in on July 1, will top up the starting salary for an Island paramedic to $23.83 from the current $23.65.

Hudson said over the next year his department will be speaking with paramedics and students about ways to address challenges within the industry. He also said the province is looking at creating a paramedic float pool of employees that can provide coverage when there are staff shortages.

'We have a contract in place, it will be renewed but we always have to look at ways to improve it,' said Hudson. (CBC)

"We have a contract in place, it will be renewed but we always have to look at ways to improve it," Hudson said. "That is the goal of everyone, to identify where the gaps are, how we can work and how we can improve the system."

He did not specify whether the province's contract with Medavie will be renegotiated. 

Code Critical 

The Opposition is also calling on government to explore options outside of the services Island EMS offers and conduct a feasibility study to determine what options are available, including the possibility of government-funded ambulance services.

Beaton spoke about a program in Nova Scotia called Code Critical, which is run by the paramedics' union and notifies people when ambulances in their area are understaffed or out of service. 

Beaton said she'd like to see something similar started here because that kind of information might hold government and Medavie accountable when services aren't meeting Islanders' needs. 

She asked public safety minister Bloyce Thompson if it was something he would support on P.E.I., he said he'd take the idea back to his department to see if it's something that could be implemented. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brittany Spencer is a multi-platform journalist with CBC P.E.I. Email: brittany.spencer@cbc.ca

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