Health minister faces calls to resign over staff shortages


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WINNIPEG — Health Minister Audrey Gordon faced repeated calls for her resignation Wednesday in the wake of a mass exodus of sexual assault nurse examiners from Manitoba’s largest hospital.

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WINNIPEG — Health Minister Audrey Gordon faced repeated calls for her resignation Wednesday in the wake of a mass exodus of sexual assault nurse examiners from Manitoba’s largest hospital.

Two additional nurses made the decision to quit their posts Wednesday.

Opposition members spent most of the day’s 40-minute question period reprimanding Gordon for the Progressive Conservative government’s handling of the forensic nurse examiner program at Health Sciences Centre.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon (Winnipeg Free Press)

“Front line nurses are speaking out and they’ve made it very clear that things are not well with this program,” New Democratic Party Leader Wab Kinew said in the chamber.

“We need a different direction when it comes to health care. Will the premier ask for the minister of health to resign today?”

On Tuesday, four casual nurses with the forensic examiner program resigned, leaving hospital administrators scrambling to put a backup staffing plan in place. Two more casual nurses quit Wednesday, according to Shared Health, which is responsible for HSC.

Half of the casual staffing pool has now resigned.

Forensic nurse examiners collect criminal evidence when survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner assault arrive at the hospital.

Until recently, the program was staffed with one full-time nurse and a dozen casual nurses who pick up shifts in addition to their other health-system responsibilities and are on call to conduct sexual-assault examinations in their off hours.

However, a nurse shortage, sinking morale and communication breakdowns between management and staff have contributed to gaps in coverage, nurses say.

That has resulted in survivors being sent home with instructions not to shower or wipe themselves after using the washroom until they can return when a nurse in the program is available.

Nurses have described feeling unsafe and uncomfortable picking up shifts in the program when they cannot deliver a standard of care survivors deserve.

Premier Heather Stefanson was not in the house Wednesday to respond to Opposition questions. Her press secretary said the premier was away on a family matter.

Gordon defended her government’s record, saying the forensic nurse examiner program required investment and stabilization after neglect by the former NDP government, which was in office from 1999 to 2016.

“We accepted accountability that the members opposite never did for this program,” Gordon said.

Last April, the Tories announced an expansion to the program and the creation of permanent, full-time nurse positions to ensure around-the-clock coverage and care for victims of sexual violence. The expanded program was to be in place early this year.

Gordon said she holds health system leaders accountable for not delivering on the government’s commitment to add permanent staff within the promised time frame. As of this week, six full-time, permanent nurses have been hired into the program but only one is able to work independently.

It could take up to six months for all the new hires to be trained and have them working in the unit.

NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said the health minister must take responsibility for the chaos in the program, saying the staffing crisis is the government’s own making.

“The actual work of ensuring nurses are listened to, that programs are properly designed and funded and that results happen, that’s not the minister’s job, according to her,” Asagwara said in question period.

Both Gordon and Families Minister Rochelle Squires shot back at the Opposition, stating the NDP cannot claim to advocate for victims of sexual violence while a caucus member defends people facing sexual assault charges in court.

Fort Garry MLA Mark Wasyliw maintains a criminal defence law practice that focuses on people charged with impaired driving, assault, sexual assault and drug offences.

Speaking to reporters after question period, Gordon said she will not resign.

“We stand on the side of sexual assault survivors and we will leave no stone unturned in ensuring that this program is fully staffed and that the services Manitobans need and deserve is available at the forensic nurse examiner program… at Health Sciences Centre and throughout the province as well,” she said.

The minister said she met with Shared Health management Tuesday and reiterated that what has happened with the SANE program to date is not aligned with the government’s commitment. She could not say when the province made funding available to Shared Health to fill the permanent positions.

Gordon said she expects the program to be fully functioning once the new hires are on the job. However, she could not explain why casual nurses — who are critically important to supporting the program in the interim — are quitting.

“That is not the direction we want to go in,” she said.

In a statement sent late Wednesday, Shared Health said the new departures have resulted in gaps in coverage and work is ongoing to minimize disruptions. The health authority said Manitobans should continue to seek care, if required.

“We will do everything possible to see these individuals quickly, to provide the necessary medical care and support, and to connect these individuals with resources in the community as well as options for follow-up care,” the statement said.

» Winnipeg Free Press

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