Sask. government unveils plan to hire, retain more health-care professionals

The provincial government announced Wednesday that it will work to fill 1,000 positions and retain more health-care professionals already working in Saskatchewan.

Plans won't address immediate issues or fill enough job openings, critics say

A tired-looking female health-care worker wearing medical scrubs, a medical mask and rubber gloves, with a stethoscope around her neck, leans against an outdoor wall in the sunshine, which casts her shadow.
The Saskatchewan government says it has a plan to retain and recruit health-care professionals, including nurses, physicians, lab technicians and others. (Alliance Images/Shutterstock)

The government of Saskatchewan's plan to address the province's health-care situation is becoming clearer, after a Wednesday announcement that it will spend roughly $60 million to hire and retain health-care professionals in the province.

The government first announced its plan to hire and retain more health-care professionals when it unveiled its latest provincial budget in the spring.

"We understand that there are some issues. We had some very direct, honest feedback from health-care workers and that's where this plan came from," Health Minister Paul Merriman said at a joint news conference with Rural and Remote Health Minister Everett Hindley on Wednesday. 

"That's why we're rolling this plan out now — and this isn't just a plan for now, this is a plan for the long term as well." 

Earlier this summer, the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses said that 83 per cent of its members had reported vacant positions in their units.

Several communities throughout the province have been impacted by temporary service disruptions due to employee shortages this summer.

The province says it aims to bring in roughly 1,000 more physicians, nurses and other health-care support staff to fill vacancies.

Merriman said the strategy will involve the Ministry of Advanced Education and a plan to recruit more health-care professionals from abroad. 

People already living in Canada with international health-care education will be targeted for employment opportunities as well, he said.

Health Minister Paul Merriman announced the provincial government would work to fill 1,000 job openings and retain more health-care professionals in Saskatchewan as the province deals with a health system crisis. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Some part-time and temporary positions will be converted to full-time positions as well.

The work was slated to begin as soon as possible, both ministers in attendance at Wednesday's press conference said.

Merriman said the challenges Saskatchewan is facing in its health-care system are similar to those across Canada and around the world, but he said the hiring and retention program should stabilize Saskatchewan's system.

"We can't fix this problem in three months. This is an ongoing problem that we've had within our human resource strategy," Merriman said. 

"We need to be able to develop programs that will fix some of the things right now, but also fix [them] long term."

Addressing rural health strain

Some of the positions the province plans to fill will be dedicated to rural health, which Hindley said will focus on areas affected by service disruptions, such as temporary changes to emergency room or acute case services, or changes to the availability of lab services.

"If you look at these temporary service disruptions there's a common theme there. A lot of it is because they don't have enough [registered nurses], or [licensed practical nurses] or they don't have enough staff," Hindley said. 

Rural and Remote Health Minister Everett Hindley said Wednesday some of the positions the provincial government is looking to fill will be in areas affected by service reductions. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

"That's why the focus is on a number of [job] designations. That being said, we know there's other areas of the province where we are short health-care professionals."

Assistant deputy minister for rural health Billie-Jo Morrissette said an exact breakdown of how the new positions would be distributed through the province wasn't yet available. 

She said that will depend on what kind of resources are needed in each community. The jobs will fall into nine different categories, including nurses, physicians, lab technicians and care aides.

Bobbie-Jo Morrissette, the assistant deputy minister for rural and remote health, said Wednesday the province will assess the needs of communities affected by temporary service disruptions to determine where staffing is most needed in Saskatchewan. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Hindley said Wednesday's announcement builds on health-care funding announced in the spring provincial budget and is just a start.

He called the plan "one of the most competitive in the country," but added a lot of work needs to be done to get it right. 

He said overall, however, he is "very confident" the province will be able to create the health-care positions outlined in the plan.

"We've had very good response from, as one example … from the Philippines, which is one country we've successfully brought in health-care workers from previously," Hindley said.

"I think there's confidence out there in rural communities as well.… I'm confident with today's announcement and today's measures that we're heading in the right direction." 

Plan doesn't address immediate issues: SUN

Saskatchewan Union of Nurses president Tracy Zambory said the union may have offered information about the state of the provincial health-care system to the government, but wasn't consulted in the creation of the plan.

Even if the province's strategy does address long-term issues, it's missing elements that would immediately address system strains, she said, such as the creation of a nursing resource team.

Such a committee "could be formed together today, and call a meeting immediately this week," she said.

She said the plan won't immediately stop the number of nurses the province is seeing "bleed out of the system." 

Tracy Zambory, president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, says she wants to see the province do more to help nurses now, not just in the long term. (Saskatchewan Union of Nurses)

Many of the nurses who have left the province say they felt their workplaces were "in chaos," according to Zambory, who said nothing in the government's plan addresses that.

"There's nothing here looking at nursing leadership, or fostering nursing leadership in the workplace. There's nothing here to address the mental health issues," she said. 

"This is a plan that unfortunately is going to do nothing to retain registered nurses in the immediate future."

Saskatchewan's NDP echoed Zambory's concerns, and said the Saskatchewan Party government was 500 jobs short of addressing the issues in its hiring goals.

A news release from the Opposition party said the 1,000 new positions would account for only two-thirds of what is needed to fill current job postings on the Saskatchewan Health Authority's website.

Health critic Vicki Mowat said the plan announced Wednesday was something the provincial government should have been working on years ago, but the province instead "sat on its hands" while health-care gaps widened. 

"While it's good to see action on our call for full-time positions and training seats, nearly half of what was announced today are repackaged old policies," Mowat said. 

Of the 26 measures outlined in the government's plan, only 14 were new, she said. She noted provinces like B.C. and Ontario announced similar plans months ago.

"Health-care workers are leaving for other provinces like British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario despite the higher cost of living. When it comes to retention, this plan is vague on details and fails to provide concrete strategies to keep health-care workers in Saskatchewan," Mowat said. 

"Retention should have been priority No. 1."


Bryan Eneas

Assignment Producer

I am a journalist from the Penticton Indian Band, currently based in Regina, Saskatchewan working with CBC Indigenous. Before joining CBC Indigenous I worked with CBC Saskatchewan and the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group photographing and reporting on a wide range stories, of particular interest to people in Saskatchewan.