Solution needed for Baffin Crisis
Iqaluit hospital may close more beds

Kerry McCluskey
Northern News Services

IQALUIT (Nov 23/98) - If officials don't soon come up with an actual solution to the acute nursing shortage in the Baffin, Iqaluit's regional hospital will have to close even more of its 34 beds.

"We've reduced the available beds substantially to 18 and, if pressures continue without relief, we will have to look at further bed reductions," said Dennis Patterson, the chair of the Baffin regional health and social services board.

Patterson said that meant dealing with the added cost and patient stress of devolving services to Ottawa that would previously have been available in Iqaluit. But, he said, the board would have no other choice if the situation declined any further.

"Even at reduced bed levels, we're managing to barely hold the line. We're not going to compromise patient safety and we're not going to expect our staff to work on stressful or unsafe conditions."

Patterson made the comments during territorial Health Minister Kelvin Ng's visit to Iqaluit last Thursday. Ng was in town primarily to speak to the health board and management and frontline nursing staff about the issue of the recruitment and retention of health care professionals.

While the nursing shortage is severe across the entire NWT, the situation has rapidly become critical in the Baffin region where the number of nurses at the Iqaluit hospital has dropped from 34 to 21.5 full-time people. That number is expected to drop to 17.5 by Christmas.

Both Patterson and Ng said the inability to hire and keep nurses stemmed from the lack of a collective agreement between the Union of Northern Workers and the GNWT. Current salary and benefit levels cannot compete with those offered by southern employers and do not reflect the expensive market realities on Baffin Island.

Earlier this month, the UNW refuted that argument. Union public relations officer Ben McDonald said there have been numerous instances in the past where, in recognition of recruiting problems related to wages and benefits, the government has increased wages and benefits outside of collective bargaining.

When Ng was asked earlier this month what he could do to push forward separate negotiations for the nurses, he said he had no control over the situation and could not increase the deal for one group of workers and not the others. But after coming face-to-face with hospital staff employed by his department in Iqaluit, Ng said he would approach cabinet and see what he could do.

"I've been asked by the management to try and look at considering putting forward the collective agreement issues of the nurses separately and have the union and the GNWT recognize that there is a desire to try and resolve that issue," said Ng.

"I'm planning to bring it up with my cabinet colleagues, in particular with Mr.(John) Todd of the Financial Management Board Secretariat who's in charge of the negotiations and see if there's anything that can be done in the interim."

Ng's department has also taken steps to establish a relief pool of workers and to prevent future shortages by pumping $2.4 million into the support, promotion and education of a Northern health care workforce.

But Ng did not have a clear answer when asked why steps weren't taken at any time during the last year to ward off the impending nursing shortage.

"That's a real subjective question. There are pressures all over the country. Even if we were to get the additional pay and benefits...we still can't say for sure. It will help the situation, but it won't solve everything."