Saskatchewan

Kamsack, Sask., rally organizer says rural hospital service shutdowns are 'life and death' matter

Staffing shortages at the Kamsack Hospital has reduced services to a limited emergency department with zero acute care beds left, sparking a rally from community.

Kamsack Hospital one of several rural health centres facing disruptions

A group of people with coloured signs walk toward the entrance of the Kamsack Hospital in Kamsack, Saskatchewan.
A mass of people gathered in front of the Kamsack Hospital in Kamsack, Sask., Thursday, a day after the last local acute care bed was lost due to staffing shortages, to call on the government to support health care services. (Tria Donaldson/Twitter)

Residents of the Kamsack, Sask., area may now need to drive half an hour or more for hospital care, as staffing shortages have led to the closure of the last local acute care bed and shut down of other services at the town's hospital. 

Kamsack is about 350 kilometres east of Saskatoon.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority let community members know that as of Wednesday, inpatient and some emergency services at the Kamsack Hospital had been put on hold until further notice. The emergency department at the hospital will only be open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. CST.

Beyond that, residents will have to travel to Canora, or a more distant town like Yorkton, Wadena or Kelvington, the advisory said.

It's going to overwhelm our ambulance service, they're already starting to feel the burnout.- Nancy Brunt, Kamsack mayor

The announcement caused a stir in the community that boiled over into the area outside the hospital Thursday morning, as provincial politicians spoke with residents rallying for a government response. 

"We never really got any answers from them,"  said Betty Dix, the co-organizer of the event and a former mayor of the town, after the rally. "We just got a hope and a promise. Not even a promise, just a hope."

DIx estimates hundreds of thousands of people move through the region each year, including through its provincial parks, and is concerned that if there's a disaster, people will have to drive hours to receive medical care — or wait for an air ambulance.

"This is the busiest time of the year, more than winter, for this area and we don't have a bed. That's pretty scary," she said. 

"It's life and death, that's what we've come down to."

Dix said the government needs to step up and fix the problem.

'A dollar short and an hour late'

Linda Osachoff, a long-time administrative health care employee who has worked in the Kamsack Hospital, was at the rally Thursday.

Osachoff said the crowd was full of passionate people concerned their hospital would close permanently. She said it felt like the government was "a dollar short and a day late," appearing only after the last acute care bed was lost.

"You might think money is the solution, but it's actually accountability and planning," she said, adding the province needs to make rural locations more attractive for professionals seeking jobs.

Kamsack Mayor Nancy Brunt said there's a shortage of both nursing and lab staff. She said people have retired or taken jobs elsewhere in bigger cities, reducing staff at what she says is one of the busiest hospitals in the region.

The hospital serves several rural municipalities and First Nation communities in the area. Without the 20 acute care beds, other health services are going to struggle and other hospitals in the region are going to have to manage an influx of patients, she said.

"It's going to overwhelm our ambulance service, they're already starting to feel the burnout. Our people have to go mostly to Yorkton now. Canora and Preeceville are experiencing the same difficulties," Brunt said.

Political hot potato on hospital closures

Opposition NDP critic for seniors Matt Love was at the rally. He also took the opportunity in a news release to jab at the provincial government for closing down hospitals, a critique the province has often made of the NDP.

"After being in power for 15 years, the health-care staffing crisis is theirs and theirs alone," Love said in the statement. 

Saskatchewan Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Everett Hindley fired back, telling reporters at the rally that while the Kamsack Hospital is being temporarily disrupted, the NDP permanently closed hospitals.

In an emailed statement following the rally, Hindley said the government is "committed to reopening all 20 beds at the Kamsack Hospital."

"We want the community to know that we take rural health care seriously and we are working every day to recruit health-care workers to work in Kamsack and other communities where services have been disrupted by staff turnover."

LISTEN | Sask. not only province with struggling emergency departments: 
If you've found yourself sitting in an ER waiting room with no end in sight, you're not alone. Host Leisha Grebinski speaks with Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians President Mike Howlett about how things got to this crisis point, and what needs to be done to alleviate pressure on the system. We also hear from Dr. Brian Geller about the state of Saskatchewan Emergency Rooms.

Two more physicians are expected to arrive in Kamsack to support the hospital, but the province will need to hire more nurses to reintroduce the 20 acute care beds it promised the town and surrounding community.

Bashir Jalloh, president of CUPE Local 5430, said that Kamsack is one of several bed closures and emergency room shutdowns in recent weeks, with others in Melville, Spiritwood and Esterhazy.

"Not all of these are listed on the Saskatchewan Health Authority website," said Jalloh. "There needs to be more transparency from the [health authority] about service disruptions and closures and what steps are being taken to address the situation."

The health authority did not respond to an emailed inquiry from CBC asking about service disruptions not appearing on its website.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dayne Patterson is a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan and is based in Saskatoon. He has a master's degree in journalism with an interest in data reporting and Indigenous affairs. Reach him at dayne.patterson@cbc.ca.

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