Planning ahead
Prevention to be the focus of health care

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

IQALUIT (Aug 02/99) - The Nunavut government has big plans for the health care system, but there's plenty of work to be done before the improvements can happen.

"It's going to take some time," said Health Minister Ed Picco of his intention to shift the focus of health care from treatment to prevention. "We're looking at 5, 10, 15 years down the road. It's going to take time and to get there we're going to have capacity at all levels."

Capacity is a serious and immediate concern, particularly with nurses. Picco noted the nursing vacancy rate is hovering around the 35-40 per cent level. The health department recently obtained a slight amount of temporary relief by recruiting 11 nurses from Australia.

The health minister said the first step in that direction will take place before the end of this month. He will be appointing a ministers' task force composed of health care professionals from all regions to look at the issues of recruiting and retention of nurses in the North.

The task force will consult with health care workers and public representatives in each community. Its report, and those done in the past by the GNWT on the same issue, will be considered very carefully, said Picco.

"I can tell you right now, it won't be a report sitting on the shelf gathering dust."

Nunavut Employees Union representative Doug Workman said the Nunavut government will have a chance to address its main nursing recruitment problem in the next collective agreement. The current agreement expires March 31, 2000.

Workman said he has filed a notice to bargain June 18 in an attempt to start up the negotiations, but so far the government has shown little interest.

He said recruitment and retention of nurses and other government employees goes back to 1996 contract, which brought an end to vacation travel assistance and housing allowances.

"Those are the two number one things that are needed to make the decentralized model work and to have a strong public service, but that hasn't been done."

Picco agreed.

"I think we need to bring the VTA back because I don't think we're competitive in the marketplace right now," said the minister.

The Iqaluit East MLA said the coming contract negotiation could go a long way toward helping address the recruitment and retention of health care workers.

When, and if, the chronic staffing shortage is dealt with, the focus will turn to a new holistic model of health care delivery. Social workers, drug and alcohol workers, employment and housing as well as medical care would be considered part and parcel of the same community health package under the system Picco envisions.

The elimination of the health boards, he said, is part of that process.

"Right now we have three different health boards with three different sets of policies," said Picco. "What we're trying to do is have a uniform system and with standards available to everyone."

Picco said the elimination of the health boards will mean the elimination of a layer of bureaucracy.

"That will bring government closer to the people and that's one of the mandates of the Nunavut government," he said.

Ironically, when Nunavut Finance Minister Kelvin Ng was Minister of Health and Social Services in the NWT government he responded to criticism of the board system from MLAs including Picco by saying the boards brought government closer to the people.