Health-care workers sound alarm over Ontario hospital cuts

WATERLOO REGION — The region’s three hospitals need 1,200 additional workers — nurses, paramedics, clerks and support staff — to stave off a deepening health crisis, says a chair of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

“Provincially, that number is growing to 45,000,” said Dave Verch, vice president of the union council and a 34-year-old male nurse.

Verch addressed Grand River Hospital on Wednesday as part of a province-wide campaign to raise awareness of what hospital unions are calling a growing crisis.

Without those attitudes, problems with rising emergency room wait times and unprecedented staffing shortages would worsen as the population grows and ages, he warned.

Average emergency room wait times at Grand River Hospital are up 37 percent over the past year, while wait times at St. Mary’s General Hospital are up 55 percent, unions said.

At a time when 80 hospitals across Ontario were forced to close emergency rooms or intensive care beds at different times over the summer, Premier Doug Ford’s government is cutting $1.6 billion in dedicated COVID-19 funding from hospitals, unions say.

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Nurses, paramedics and support staff are exhausted and demoralized 30 months into the pandemic, and the annual turnover rate is now nearly 15 percent, twice what it was before the pandemic, Verch said.

“This is not normal or acceptable,” he said.

Without changes, the drain of hospital staff will continue to accelerate, Verch said.

“We went into this pandemic with insufficient capacity in our hospital system, and now it’s struggling with staff leaving and not being replaced,” Welch said.

The Council of Hospital Unions is part of CUPE – the Canadian Union of Public Employees. It is engaged in an information battle with the conservative Ford government.

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Their battleground is a hospital system struggling so badly under COVID-19 that someone diagnosed with cancer can wait more than a year for surgery to remove a malignant tumor.

More than ever, the country needs to invest in the people who work in the hospitals, Verch said.

“Increase wages to attract and retain employees,” he said. “There is no way to solve the workforce crisis without wage increases.”

Reduce workloads by hiring more full-time workers and provide mental health support for current workers, he added.

The province should also ban hospitals from using more expensive nurses from private agencies, repeal Bill 124 that limits nurses to a one percent annual salary increase, and expand training programs for nurses and paramedics.

“Tuition should be waived,” said Nick Desclouds, the president of CUPE Local 5191, which represents the area’s paramedics.

The Waterloo Region approved the hiring of 65 new paramedics and 11 new trucks, which should bring the total number of paramedics in the region to almost 350 next year.

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Paramedics are responding to more calls with fewer staff, and an aging population is making for more serious calls, Desclouds said.

“We’re struggling with retention,” he said. “This year we’ve hired 40 paramedics and we’ve already lost about 20 paramedics who want a safer job, a better job, or are moving to other services.”

He said 91 percent of members are now reporting mental health issues after two and a half years of pandemic working conditions.

And 83 percent of members say the workload is damaging to both their physical and mental health, Desclouds said.

“What we’re looking for are creative ways to keep our paramedics on,” he said.

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