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North Shore Health Network appeals to Blind River for support

The health network blames provincial funding cuts for dire physician shortages, inability to attract locums resulting in temporary emergency department closures
Thessalon Hospital file photo.

Cutbacks in provincial funding to keep emergency departments open is contributing to locums unwilling to fill in temporary doctor vacancies at hospitals in the North Shore Health Network, its president and CEO told Blind River Town Council on Monday evening.

The network operates healthcare facilities in Blind River, Thessalon, and Richards Landing - Matthews.

Facilities in Thessalon and Blind River have had to temporarily close their emergency departments due to a doctor shortage, President and CEO Tim Vine said in a letter to Blind River council.

According to Vine, the doctor shortage “is ever worsening.”

“We have a Thessalon hospital and its two aligned clinics with zero permanent physicians,” he said in his letter. “We now have an understaffed Blind River emergency department that has created gaps in coverage.”

Vine blames decreased funding as the cause for doctor shortages and possible temporary emergency room shutdowns.

On March 31, the Ontario government allowed a temporary program called the CTSLPE (COVID-19 Temporary Summer Locum Program Expansion) designed to help rural emergency departments handle the added burden of COVID-19 expire. Rural hospitals like the ones operated by North Shore Health Network can no longer pay locums needed to fill in where there is a doctor shortage a rate that's competitive with what they would be paid to work at a less isolated facility.

With doctor shortages across the province, competition for locums is tough.

“The expiration of the CTSLPE funding has created backlash from our current locum pool who have stated that it will be extremely hard to make our sites worth their while,” Vine noted. “Compounding our issues, our Sault Area physicians that offer locum support in our emergency departments are also experiencing staff shortages in their ED, which makes the prospect of closures very real. We have had locums who have both cancelled shifts with us, or have stated they will not be coming back with the new remuneration.”

“Outside of our current locum pool, any external inquiring locums we have been in touch with have shown little interest in our rural ED shifts with the new rates. This is especially true for our Thessalon site. They not only lost CTSLPE funding but the Ministry of Health’s daily stipend and travel stipend have reverted back to three-year-old rates. Yet another hit to the prospect of securing coverage for our underserviced community.”

This drop in remuneration for rural centres will make them less attractive than urban centres and will inevitably have a negative impact on any recruitment efforts (permanent or locum), and certainly will further stress any retention efforts with our permanent physician groups, Vine said.

“The North Shore Health Network feels they are currently travelling an unsustainable path due to our staffing issues. We hope that some form of intervention from your organizations can alleviate the immense burden we are feeling,” Vine said in his appeal for support from council.

“This issue is very serious, very dire,” said Councillor Jennifer Posteraro. “The shortchanging of public services needs to stop. It is literally killing northern Ontario citizens. When you hear the (provincial) government is sitting on over $20 billion of funds that would help public services is unacceptable.”

Councillor Jim Dunbar agreed with the seriousness of the situation, and he urged voters to consider those responsible for the situation be held accountable at the ballot box.

“This isn’t getting any better for anyone here or people in southern Ontario,” he said.

A motion stating the threat of emergency closure is not acceptable to residents of Blind River and surrounding communities along the north shore was adopted by council. It will be sent to Premier Doug Ford and several of the ministers in related portfolios.


About the Author: Kris Svela

Kris Svela has worked in community newspapers for the past 36 years covering politics, human interest, courts, municipal councils, and the wide range of other topics of community interest
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