It’s no secret that the Kenora region, along with most of Canada, is experiencing a major staffing crisis within the health care sector. After two years of a global pandemic, burnout, exhaustion and disengagement, the hospitals and health care settings are facing historic vacancy rates.  

Recently, Lake of the Woods District Hospital CEO, Ray Racette, shared alarming statistics about the staffing crisis at Lake of the Woods District Hospital. 

“There’s no patient-related service that is fully staffed right now, like even labs a 25 per cent vacancy. Emergency the vacancy rate is 44 per cent, ICU has a 55 per cent vacancy. Nursing supervisors have just over 50 per cent vacancies. All of our services have vacancies we’ve never seen before.” 

Racette shared that since September of 2021, LWDH Intensive Care Unit (ICU) has had to close its doors 14 times, with most incidents happening quite recently.  

Just last month, the Red Lake Margaret Cochenour Hospital emergency room had to close its doors for an entire weekend due to local physician shortages resulting in incoming patients being redirected to the Dryden Regional Health Centre 216 kilometres away.  

Health care workers and hospital administration are not the only ones ringing the alarm bells, local politicians have been bringing the issues of their ridings forward to the provincial government.  

Greg Rickford, MPP for the Kenora-Rainy River district shared his thoughts on what needs to be done.  

“This is something that has been in need of addressing for a very long time, we have addressed some of it but we are going to go full throttle now.”  

“First of all, the Northern School of Medicine has been freed up to put bricks and mortar in communities across northwestern Ontario, we believe and hope that [one] will be in Kenora – certainly if I have anything to do with it.”  

In a previous statement, Minister of Health and Deputy Premier, Christine Elliot responded to concerns of staffing shortages by announcing an additional 295 graduate and 160 undergraduate seats to medical schools in Ontario over the next five years.  

The Northern Ontario School of Medicine will receive 41 undergraduates and 30 graduate seats. 

Rickford hasn’t been the only MPP in the area expressing concerns. On April 5, 2022, Kiiwetinoong MPP, Sol Mamakwa, brought forward a similar situation with a physician shortage in Sioux Lookout that has almost cost their hospital's emergency room to shut its doors. He mentioned that a doctor in the region worked ten 24-hour shifts in one month, six more than a doctor usually works. 

Rickford continued by reinforcing the provincial government’s support for nurses in Ontario.  

“We wanted to reward our nursing heroes with a $5000 one-time payment for the extraordinary work they did [through the COVID-19 pandemic],” explained Rickford.  

The province announced in early March, a one-time payment of $5000 to eligible nurses as an incentive to stay on the job. The move was met with criticism from some nursing unions who viewed the payment as a band-aid solution to a systemic problem.  

In light of recent shortages, health care workers have once again called for Bill 124 to be repealed. In 2019, the Ford government introduced and passed Bill 124, negatively impacting nurses and other health care professionals as the Bill limits compensation increases, including salaries, pensions, and benefits to a maximum of one per cent total for three-year periods. 

On March 21, 2022, health care workers rallied in front of Rickford's Kenora office as they demanded Bill 124 be repealed.  

Judy Bain, Area 7 Vice President of the Ontario Council Hospital Union commented on the feelings of the health care workers. “It’s just pennies in today’s society we can’t survive to live," said Bain. “People are leaving the profession, they’re tired, overworked and they feel that they can’t carry on.” 

“At the end of the day it isn’t something we’re going to take home every day, it doesn’t go towards our pension,” said Bain when asked about the $5,000 payment.  

Doctors and nurses were not the only ones who received incentives according to Rickford, “We have bumped the wages of PSW’s up by $3 an hour. We have increased support programs and [contributed] significant investments into Seven Generations Education Institute and Confederation College to bring on a new generation of health human resources.” 

On March 29, 2022, the province announced its new Plan to Stay Open, which aims to build a stronger, more resilient healthcare system that’s better prepared to respond to crises by filling long-standing gaps in the province’s workforce, supply chain, and lack of hospital beds. 
 
If the legislation is passed, Ontario says the Plan to Stay Open will look to recruit and retain more doctors, nurses, and personal support workers across the province, it will expand domestic production of personal protective equipment and will continue building healthcare infrastructure to build capacity. 
 
Initiatives include free tuition and books for nursing students, enhance wages for personal support workers, reduced barriers for foreign-credentialed healthcare workers to practice in Ontario, a significant expansion of medical school education, and the construction of 3,000 new hospitals beds over 10 years. 

“There is still more to be done, but those at the front are what we are working on right now.”  

“Hopefully on the other side of the election, should we have the chance, we will move forward with this work more aggressively,” concluded Rickford.