Doug Ford says province is trying to end the hospital crisis

Premier Doug Ford has broken his silence on the hospital emergency room crisis, saying the province is throwing “everything in the kitchen sink” at it and accelerating the accreditation of foreign-trained nurses.

“We’re in need of more nurses, as many as we can get,” Ford said Wednesday.

With temporary closures of emergency rooms mounting, mainly in smaller hospitals as COVID-19 continues, the premier was on the defensive at an auto industry announcement in Stratford where he faced questions on the deteriorating situation in Ontario’s pandemic-ravaged health-care system.

“We’re going to continue coming up with ideas and working with the College of Nurses to get the internationally trained nurses through … in a much faster, rapid process,” he told reporters.

“The minister of health is putting a directive to the college of nurses asking them to speed up the process.”

No details on the directive were immediately available.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford took questions as emergency departments across the province have been forced to closed due to staffing shortages. Nursing groups say workers who are burnt out and underpaid are leaving the field, while Ford says he appreciates their efforts but won’t give out a larger bonus or repeal wage restraint legislation. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

About 760 international nurses have been cleared to receive Ontario credentials this year to ease the staffing shortage in hospitals where nurses, exhausted by heavy patient loads from more than two years of COVID have been quitting or retiring at higher rates than usual.

Although emergency rooms were closed in 20 smaller hospitals across the province over the long weekend — forcing sick people to travel longer distances for treatment — Ford maintained “Ontarians continue to have access to the care they need, when they need it.”

“Nine out of 10 high-urgency patients are finishing their emergency visit within targeted times. And surgeries are happening at nearly 90 per cent of pre-pandemic rates,” he added.

“That’s welcome news. But it doesn’t change the fact that our hospitals and emergency departments are feeling increased pressures right now.”

Those pressures come despite the addition of 3,100 hospital beds during the pandemic and the hiring of 10.500 health-care workers.

Ford noted Ontario is not alone and other jurisdictions across Canada and around the world are facing the same health-care challenges — a shortage of doctors, nurses, personal support workers and other staff.

He called on the federal government to boost health-care funding to the provinces and boasted Ontario’s $5,000 retention bonus to nurses who worked throughout the pandemic is equivalent to an average raise of 7.6 per cent — even though it is an add-on payment and not reflected in their base pay.

Ford said Bill 124 from 2019, which limited salary increases for nurses and other public sector workers to one per cent annually and has been blamed for an exodus of nurses from the hospital system, will no longer apply as new collective agreements are negotiated.

“Bill 124 expires as the new contracts come on … the hospitals will negotiate fairly with the nurses. It’s not our government.”

Ford’s comments follow remarks from Health Minister Sylvia Jones on Tuesday, who suggested there are no quick fixes for the crisis and said much-needed summer holidays for nurses and other health-care workers are exacerbating the problem.

“I appreciate the front-line health-care workers that work their backs off, day in and day out,” Ford said. “They’re exhausted. I get it,” he added.

“Do we need more people? One hundred per cent. We need more people.”

Opposition parties have repeatedly pushed the government to repeal Bill 124 to send a positive signal to nurses in a bid to stem the high attrition rate that has contributed to ER closures and the temporary closure of the intensive care unit at the Bowmanville campus of the Lakeridge Health system.

Patients from the ICU in Bowmanville were transferred to Lakeridge campuses in Ajax-Pickering and Oshawa.

“Seriously sick patients are being moved,” New Democrat MPP and health critic France Gelinas said Tuesday. “Long waits and hallway medicine are rampant. And some people will rush to the ER only to find the doors locked.”

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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