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A medical emergency

Philippe Morin
Northern News Services

Inuvik (Dec 04/06) - The NWT government is wasting thousands of tax dollars on flights, vacation packages, bonuses and $500-dollar finders' fees to provide small communities with nurses, said premier Joe Handley.

On Nov. 28, at the Beaufort Delta regional Council meeting in Inuvik, Handley minced no words about the problem, saying a lack of permanent resident nurses was becoming too expensive.

NNSL Photo/graphic

NWT Premier Joe Handley says rates being paid are "almost criminal," and the situation unsustainable. But he noted the territory doesn't have any other options, until local people are trained as nurses. - Philippe Morin/NNSL photo

"We really have to get away from hiring agency nurses. It's killing us and they don't stay long in the communities. The only other way I could see is training our own people. We're going broke otherwise," he said.

Arlene Hansen, vice-chair of Beaufort Delta Regional Health and Social Services, agreed the costs were outrageous.

She said finders' agencies can charge the government more than $500 a day just to provide nurses, which is added to the nurses' salaries and benefits such as free flights, vacation time, bonuses, and other incentives, just to keep them in small towns.

For example, one paramedic at the Inuvik Regional Hospital said he received a paid flight back to Ontario - every few weeks.

"It's been horrendous," Hansen said. "And when I say horrendous, I mean it's a huge expense to the government of the NWT. If there's one thing that's going to put us into bankruptcy, this is it," she said.

But while casual relief workers are indeed expensive, premier Handley said the territory has no choice but to pay them.

He compared the situation to a ransom, saying the government obviously wants to save money, but can't leave communities without medical staff.

"To pay an agency $500 a day just to find a nurse is almost criminal, but we're caught," he said.

Hansen added that the situation is especially unfair because full-time resident nurses don't get the same benefits as replacement ones.

They are effectively penalized for agreeing to live in the community as a regular public servant.

"Some nurses working in communities have relief nurses working alongside them and it's not equal," Hansen said.

Another issue raised on Nov. 28 was the quality of care in Beaufort Delta communities, where nurses often don't stay long.

Without someone who knows residents, delegates said, it's possible that nurses would misdiagnose people, or fail to spot long-term developing problems.

Merven Gruben, who is deputy mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, told the assembly that a member of his family once had a chest pain misdiagnosed as a cold, when in actuality he'd suffered a mild heart attack, leading to his death.

This type of nightmare was also feared by Carol Arey from Aklavik, who said the often hurried visits of medical professionals like pediatricians might lead to a lesser standard of care.

"The majority of the time they come into the community, it's only a few days and it's rushed," she said.

While everyone at the meeting agreed the expensive program designed for emergencies has become a daily crutch for the NWT's health system, they had different ideas for solutions.

Gruben said Tuktoyaktuk might retain more permanent nurses if the hamlet improved nurses' housing, which he said has no internet or cable TV.

"I talked to some nurses who said they wouldn't have come up if they knew (the quality of housing)," he said.

Another solution proposed was the creation of a new agency by the government, which would provide temporary nurses to communities without requiring thousand-dollar bonuses.

This would be obviously difficult, admitted Hansen, because the casual relief nurses are covered by a union and it is unlikely they would voluntarily give up their bonuses or accept salary cuts.

Ultimately, delegates agreed it was important that local people enter the workforce, so that nurses in the NWT have a higher chance of living in arctic communities.

"I would encourage all of you around the table, when you go back to your communities, to encourage your families to look at nursing as a viable alternative," said Miki O'Kane, the campus director of Aurora College.

"You have to hook kids onto the idea that they can be the caregivers in their communities and do a great job. Training local people seems to be the only long-term solution," she said.

Aurora College has offered practical nurse training in the past, but that program was cancelled this year.

O'Kane said there were not enough suitable graduates with high enough aptitudes in math and science to make the program feasible.