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Paramedics take their concerns to Legislature

Daily Leg Update: Working conditions and response times for ambulances still a concern, as NDP release more logs of calls of hours-long wait times.
Paul Hills was seen at the Legislature representing Saskatoon paramedics.

REGINA - Ambulance call response times were once again an issue at the Legislature as paramedics and firefighters were on hand to share their concerns.

The visit of EMS providers was part of their annual lobby that they do at the Legislature to raise their issues with both political parties. On this day, the opposition New Democrats took political advantage by sending out a release in which their leader Carla Beck pledged that if elected in 2024, she would improve ambulance care and reform Saskatchewan’s Ambulance Act.

The Opposition also used the occasion to release several more Freedom of Information documents from earlier in the 2023, outlining more hours-long ambulance call wait times. 

Opposition Health Critic Matt Love read some of those into the record during Question Period, as recorded in Hansard.

Mr. Love — “From July 10th: ‘Offload delays at General all night, five to six deep.’ From July 25th: ‘Longest continuous offload all day. Single patient more than six hours. OLDs all day at RGH and/or Pasqua.’ From June 25th: ‘Tons of ODs. OLD issues at Pasqua despite multiple open rooms.’

“Mr. Speaker, these delays are caused by this tired and out-of-touch government’s short-staffing crisis in our hospitals. Nurses want to help and they’ve called for a task force to fix this. Why won’t that minister just say yes to the nurses, so we can fix these chronic problems in our hospitals that lead to those long delays?”

Health Minister Everett Hindley responded by mentioning the government’s investments in emergency services:

“… I talked about the $8.8 million increase for EMS services, $2.6 million for wage parity funding for paramedics working for contracted services. Additional funding, a 2 per cent grant increase for contracted ambulance operators to mitigate some of the pressures they are facing, Mr. Speaker.

“More training seats through Sask Poly and our Saskatchewan regional colleges, Mr. Speaker, adding an additional 100 paramedic care, paramedic training seats in our post-secondary institutions to bring more people into that system. We’re going to continue to work with our front-line health care providers on these initiatives.

 “Here’s a quote, Mr. Speaker, from March 24th, and I quote: ‘It’s a great budget for ground EMS. It doesn’t meet everything 100 per cent, but that can’t happen overnight,’ says Steven Skoworodko, president of the Paramedic Services Chiefs of Saskatchewan. We continue to work with the front-line health care providers to address these challenges.”

Those responses didn’t satisfy Love, who pointed to more FOI documents outlining delays.

“From September 30th: ‘OLD bad. Longest, eight-plus hours at one point. Six of my nine units were tied up at the General ER. [Six of nine.] Two more tied up at Pasqua. Eight of nine units tied up at the hospital. That dog don’t hunt.’ Mr. Speaker, will the minister finally admit that when it comes to Sask Party’s record on health care, as these paramedics said, ‘That dog don’t hunt.’”

But the issues extended beyond response and wait times to include those about working conditions for paramedics as well.

In speaking to reporters, Paul Hills, president of the Saskatoon Paramedics Association, said his main concerns were about the state of the EMS service, not only urban but rural. 

He said there had been work done over the years to increase the working conditions and resources, “but it’s just not quite enough yet to catch up to where we need to be.”

“I would say over 15 years of advocating for EMS, we’re just kind of playing catch-up rather than being progressive and moving our system forward. So what we’re here to do is ask the decision makers, both left and right, to look at opportunities to open the Ambulance Act legislation, and look at opportunities to fully integrate EMS into the healthcare system. We’re kind of always that one on the periphery and one of the last to look at and we are an important piece of health, and we want to be seen that way.”

He said the Ambulance Act needed some major updating. It came in in 1989, and he said the legislation is very out of date.

“There’s things in there talking about equipment we haven’t used in 20 years. There’s in there things that don’t allocate us meal breaks, working conditions, hours of work. So we have our Employment Act that talks about meal breaks for every worker in the province and working hours, but those are all mitigated, or sort of put aside when the word ‘emergency’ gets put in.”

He said there were paramedics in the province that have gone 12 hours without time off task for meal breaks. “That’s just one piece of working conditions we want to look at.”

Other issues include contracts with private and public operators, and issues of retention and funding formulas.

Health Minister Hindley said to reporters that the requests around the Ambulance Act and on issues such as meal breaks and working conditions are ones he is familiar with. But he adds “I think there are differing views amongst paramedics across the province, at least the ones that I meet with on a regular basis, whether they are all individual paramedics or organizations like the Paramedic Services Chiefs of Saskatchewan.”

As for issues of wait times for ambulances raised in the Legislature, Hindley said of multi hour offload delays that it “isn’t something we want to see obviously — that’s not optimal healthcare.”

“We need to acknowledge as well this doesn’t automatically happen overnight. This is about improving flow within the hospitals, making sure that we’re having, for a number different reasons, we’re having the right patients seeing the right providers, but if they are ending up in their ERs, we do have room for them.”

As an example of what he was referring to, Hindley pointed to the Saskatchewan Health Authority's action plan to find alternative spaces for alternative level of care patients, so they do not use up acute care beds.

“That’s why I think we have a number of initiatives underway, recognizing that we need to make some impact and see some impact sooner rather than later, but also recognizing that some of this is going to take some time.”

In speaking to reporters, NDP critic Love said ambulance care providers “see a situation that is in crisis.”

“They brought this to the government for nearly a decade, they’ve received no meaningful action in response to their calls, and so they’ve come here again today to raise their concerns that they’re hearing from their members across the province.”

As for what the Opposition wanted to see as a meaningful response, Love said “they could commit to opening the Ambulance Act and looking at a piece of legislation that was created in 1989, that’s outdated, and they could look at bringing forth some meaningful changes that these members are bringing forward. Now let’s be honest, this Sask Party government has a poor record of listening to and working with healthcare workers. They’ve refused the nurses' call for a nursing task force, and they’ve refused listening to these paramedics who’ve come here today to talk about the working conditions and the conditions that patients see when they call 911. We know from the documents in FOI that there were over 1100 times in communities served by SHA ambulances where somebody called for an ambulance and there wasn’t one available. This government should be committed to fixing that problem immediately. That is a crisis that puts everyone at risk because you never know when you’re going to have to call 911.”