REGINA — The Saskatchewan government released long-awaited details of its plan for health care recruitment at a news conference Wednesday.
Minister of Health Paul Merriman and Minister for Rural and Remote Health Everett Hindley announced details of what was billed as a four-point action plan, aimed to "recruit, train, incentivize and retain" health care workers. Merriman called these “significant steps that our government is taking to stabilize and strengthen the provincial workforce.”
The plan is to invest $60 million in the action plan over the next few years with the goal to add upwards of 1,000 health care workers to the system. Merriman said the plan is informed from feedback from their health care team members, and said he and Hindley had been on the road this summer touring hospitals, community clinics, long-term care facilities and listening to front-line health care workers.
Details of the Health Human Resources Action Plan are as follows:
A new Saskatchewan Healthcare Recruitment Agency is being established to provide a dedicated focused commitment to recruitment and retention. An interim board is in place with Deputy Minister of Health Tracy Smith named as chair and the SHA's interim CEO Andrew Will as vice-chair. A search for the agency's chief executive officer is underway.
Details of the four pillars of the plan announced at the news conference:
- A memorandum of understanding is being negotiated with the government of the Philippines on recruitment of Filipino health care professionals. Senior officials will lead a health care recruitment mission to the Philippines this fall, to promote available opportunities in Saskatchewan.
- Merriman said they are also welcoming recent Ukrainian arrivals with health care backgrounds. “We want them to be aware of health care opportunities for those with medical backgrounds.”
- A provincial call is being put out to Saskatchewan residents with medical training from international institutions. These residents may require relicensing or retraining.
- Four new navigator positions are being created to help guide internationally educated health care workers with respect to licensing and finding a job within the SHA or other health care organizations.
- The plan is to aggressively promote Saskatchewan within and beyond the provincial borders. “I hope people across the province including health care workers will join us in promoting Saskatchewan and becoming a provincial ambassador,” said Merriman. “Let’s spread the word at home, across Canada and globally, that our province is a great place of opportunity for health care workers and families too, grow a rewarding career, receive excellent education and training with many available financial supports and enjoy a wonderful quality of life.”
- Saskatchewan will be the first province in Canada to introduce an accelerated and assessment pathway for eligible recruits from the Philippines. The applicants will fulfill the first six months of their educational program in the Philippines and the final three months will be completed in Saskatchewan.
- The first cohort will accommodate up to 30 Filipino nurses and accelerated training will begin later this fall. The first group of nurses will be eligible to join the provincial workforce in early 2023.
- Nursing seats have been increased by 150 in Saskatchewan's registered nurse, registered psychiatric nurse and nurse practitioner programs. With the expansion, Saskatchewan now offers 944 training seats to supplement the workforce for the long term, said Merriman.
- Further programs will be identified with post-secondary partners to ensure sector needs are met for these additional training seats, and they are looking at the potential for expansion to include new professions such as physician assistants.
- A new incentive program is being launched to provide up to $50,000 over three years for a return-of-service agreement for hard-to-recruit positions, mainly in rural and remote areas. Hindley said they expect this will financially benefit over 115 future employees of the health care system, and called it one of the most competitive packages in all of Canada.
- Eligible positions include nurse practitioners, registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, lab technicians, continuing care assistants and other positions as well. These will build on the existing incentive programs in place.
- The government will be offering enhanced financial incentives including loan forgiveness programs, bursaries and other supports to Saskatchewan students interested in a health career. “Our goal is to retain every health care field graduate from Saskatchewan to remain in this province and build their career,” said Merriman.
- For Saskatchewan students the Student Loan Forgiveness Program forgives up to $20,000 of their Saskatchewan student loans; the Graduate Retention Program provides income tax credits up to $20,000 to graduates of eligible post-secondary programs who live and work in Saskatchewan; the Final Clinical Placement Bursary is available to students in an eligible health discipline which requires completion of a final clinical placement as part of training.
- Minister Hindley said the retention strategy will "play a vital part" in strengthening the province’s health care system. To ease pressures, 100 new permanent full-time positions will be added for rural and remote communities in several areas including RNs, CCAs, licensed practical nurses and other positions.
- 150 part-time positions will be converted to full-time permanent positions for rural and remote areas.
- They will be working with unions and regulators on new mentorship programming and peer-to-peer support programming.
- Additional multisite positions for registered nurses in rural areas will be created. Nurses in these positions will have a home base and travel to multiple locations to deliver services.
- Nurses in rural and remote areas will also receive needed resource assistance through new innovative programs, which will identify flexible staff approaches to assist with short-term temporary disruptions and unexpected absences.
- The SHA will also work with partners to develop a First Nations and Métis recruitment and retention strategy. SHA will also bring in new programming for employee well-being and resiliency.
“We’ve heard your calls for additional staff to sustain the health care system,” Hindley said. “With the action plan that we have laid out today we can confidently say help is on the way.”
In speaking to reporters, Health Minister Merriman acknowledged “there are some definite challenges” with respect to the health care system.
“But what we have come up with here … this is the plan to be able to address a lot of the challenges that were brought forward to us. What we heard consistently as Minister Hindley pointed out, we need more staff. We need more people in rural Saskatchewan. We have challenges of half-time positions, now those will be full-time positions. We understand that there are some issues, we had some direct, honest feedback from health care workers which helped shape this plan. That’s why we are rolling out this plan now and this is not just a plan for today, this is a plan for the future as well.”
As for timelines, Merriman said that in talking to nurses and health care workers, he told them, “we can’t fix this problem within three months. This is an ongoing problem in our human resource strategy that we can develop programs that will fix some of the things right now but also fix long term.”
Regarding recruitment, Merriman said they are specifically targeting positions seen in service disruptions in rural Saskatchewan. What they were seeing is “people flowing into the city and creating backlogs in our emergency and our acute care.”
“We want to make sure we have the right people in the right place, not just in the cities but in rural Saskatchewan and in primary care.”
There have been notable challenges in rural communities and outside the big cities over the last few months. These include the departure of three doctors from North Battleford this summer and service disruptions reported in communities such as Kamsack, Assiniboia and most recently Weyburn.
Regarding the North Battleford situation, Hindley said he was aware of it and had conversations with MLA Jeremy Cockrill about it.
To address situations such as those, Hindley pointed to more training seats and more incentives for doctors to work in rural and remote communities. He also pointed to the expansion of training seats at the College of Medicine to encourage more home-grown doctors, as well as the new Saskatchewan Healthcare Recruitment Agency.
Of the North Battleford situation, Hindley said “we’re doing everything we can working with our partners in the SHA and our ministry to try to stabilize that situation to fill the spots. It’s an ongoing challenge that we face as doctors face retirement, as an example. We are always looking not only for recruits for these vacancies but to build upon that so that we have more doctors practising in this province.”
In a news release Wednesday, the opposition New Democrats dismissed the plan as "something the government should have been doing for years," according to the statement from Health Critic Vicki Mowat.
"Instead, they sat on their hands and made excuses while Saskatchewan’s hospitals were being run into the ground,” said Mowat. “While it’s good to see action on our call for full time positions and training seats, nearly half of what was announced today are repackaged old policies.”
It was noted that of the 26 measures announced today, only 14 are new initiatives. They also noted the plan to hire 1,000 new healthcare professionals over two years meets only two-thirds of the postings on the SHA website.
“Pledging to hire a thousand health care workers two years down the road when the SHA has 1,500 job postings today — and likely many more vacancies — simply won’t cut it,” Mowat said.