Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa says a shortage of healthcare workers in the far north will only worsen the healthcare crisis across northwestern Ontario, which needs to be addressed immediately.

At Queen’s Park, Mamakwa – the NDP’s Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation critic – questioned Premier Doug Ford and his government on the use of private-agency nursing staff to support hospitals and healthcare settings in the far north, as opposed to training and developing staff for the region.

“Northern Ontario hospitals are disproportionately impacted by healthcare staff shortages,” said Mamakwa. “In Sioux Lookout and in Red Lake, hospitals are relying on locum physicians and agency nurses to fill the staffing gaps.”

Mamakwa says about 70 per cent of nurses with the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre have been hired through private agencies and third parties, and the remaining 30 per cent are employed by Meno Ya Win themselves.

In Kenora, President and CEO of the Lake of the Woods District Hospital, Ray Racette, has repeatedly spoken about the need to attract more local staff to their hospital as they continue to face a staffing shortage ‘crisis’, as well as a lack of locum physicians available for northern Ontario.

Kenora’s hospital says their shift vacancy rate has ranged between 40 and 60 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic, but prior to 2020, shift vacancy rates were only as high as 7 to 10 per cent.

“These ongoing, unbudgeted nursing costs will lead to a deeper healthcare crisis,” adds Mamakwa. “This is not sustainable. Why is the government allowing private agencies to create these gaps when they should be working with hospitals to create sustainable solutions?”

In response, Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, Sylvia Jones, reminded Mamakwa that the Conservatives helped to create two new healthcare education opportunities in southern Ontario and that the government has added 400 physicians to support northern and rural Ontario.

“We’ve been doing that work. We’re working with the College of Nurses because we understand there is a backlog currently. We want to ensure that supply of all health-human resources is there where people need it and when they want it,” said Jones.

“These issues are not new. This is something that has historically been a challenge, to recruit and retain people in northern Ontario to practice. It is precisely why our government has invested $1 billion in our most recent budget to ensure that community care happens in the community that people want it,” she continued.

Mamakwa has previously sent an open letter to the government encouraging them to look at ways they can relieve stress on rural medical staff. They include working with the Ontario Medical Association and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine to incentivize more physicians to work and stay in the region.

When asked about northwestern Ontario’s ongoing healthcare staffing shortage, Kenora MP Eric Melillo has said he’s been pushing the federal government for more support – especially with a lack of housing available in the area and licensing barriers for immigrant healthcare workers.