By James Matthews, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Talk about an impossible task.
Trying to lure health care professionals to fill vacancies on the heels of the longest, most difficult days of a pandemic is difficult. Stress and the heartrending sights seen of COVID-19 patients and their families suffering pushed many nurses from the profession.
That makes it difficult for a health care authority to recruit nurses who have left hospital settings.
And the treatment of the Doug Ford government has pushed nurses out of Ontario. Bill 124, which was passed in 2019 before the pandemic broke, limits wage increases to one per cent for health care workers and some other public sector workers.
That makes it difficult to keep health care professionals in the ranks.
And here’s another thing: Try to draw new nurses and physicians and other crucial hospital staff to an area where there’s nowhere for them to live.
A person would have an easier time piping a tune to lead all the deer from Haliburton County gardens.
“Housing, a lack of public transportation, and the high cost of living have been barriers for recruitment and retention for many years, but they have gotten a lot worse in recent years,” said Carolyn Plummer, the president and CEO at Haliburton Highlands Health Services.
The health authority will close one of two Emergency Departments in the county. The emergency service at the Minden facility will close permanently June 1. Services will be consolidated at the Haliburton site.
“Housing in particular is very hard to come by,” Plummer said. “There is a lack of supply for those who want to purchase a home. The housing that is affordable often needs a lot of work, which then makes it far less affordable or feasible for someone to move into.
“The housing that doesn’t need work is just too costly for staff to be able to afford.”
There’s also a dearth of rental properties in which a recruited health professional could live while a permanent roof is sought. And rents tend to skyrocket in the summer.
“As a personal example, there is nothing available on the market to rent for what I was paying when we first moved permanently to the county seven years ago,” Plummer said.
“Many rentals are also short-term, through AirBnB and similar sites, which makes it hard for workers to make long-term plans.”
The HHHS decision to shift resources to Haliburton hasn’t gone over well in the Township of Minden. It hasn’t brought smiles to people in the other three municipalities, either.
Minden Mayor Bob Carter said in his mayor’s report during the May 11 council meeting that the closure is the “consuming issue” in the region. He thanked residents who launched a petition and got behind gathering signatures, the people who inked their names to the list of residents against the closure.
“Thanks everybody for keeping this top of mind,” Carter said. “I would like to say that I have a lot more information but, like everybody else, there has been absolutely no communication from HHHS in any way, shape, or form.”
County council has reached out to the health authority with a demand for more information.
“But that has not yet been delivered,” he said. “So we continue to work.”
In Algonquin Highlands, Mayor Liz Danielsen, who is also warden of the upper tier county council, spoke during a May 4 meeting about the anger of people who have been helped at the Minden Emergency Department.
“I know this will have a serious impact on a number of residents here in Algonquin Highlands and the apparent lack of a plan going forward makes it even harder for us all to accept,” she said.
Danielsen is the warden on the upper tier county council. She said she’s often made her dissatisfaction known about the lack of communication from HHHS and how it’s being handled.
If the Minden facility can’t be saved or its closure delayed, Danielsen said the township council will do its utmost to ensure health care services continue for residents and visitors across the municipality and the county.
The HHHS employment portal on its website is littered with vacant temporary and permanent fulltime and part-time jobs.
Jackie Newell, who recently moved to Minden, has been a registered nurse for 20 years. She said she has acute care experience and emergency room certification.
Newell also said she’s applied for jobs in the last six months at the Minden hospital.
“I have emailed the recruitment email on three occasions to express my interest and to inform them that I am open to all opportunities within the HHHS, not solely the emergency department,” she said.
Newell claims nobody in a recruitment capacity at HHHS ever reached out to her.
“As someone who is passionate about rural health care and providing support to under-serviced populations, I am truly disheartened to see this department close,” Newell said. “I was really looking forward to serving the community in which I live.”
Carter said he and other Township councillors have gotten much advice, both solicited and unsolicited, about courses of action people believe should be pursued at the municipal level.
He offered assurances that no stone will be left unturned.
“There is a lot that is happening and just, please, keep up the pressure and keep this top of mind,” he said. “We are striving to get the best outcome.
“To get the best provision of emergency services and the best health care possible in the county.”
Plummer said the question of housing and the high costs to live in the area have been impediments to other Haliburton County businesses and organizations.
“We know we’ve lost a number of potential candidates, at the front-line and even at the vice-president level, because of a lack of affordability,” she said.
“HHHS is grateful for the work of organizations like Places for People, who recently hosted the 2023 Haliburton County Housing Summit to look for innovative solutions to the housing challenges our community faces.”