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Health care is not in ‘crisis,’ the minister said. Nurses disagree

Nurses stormed Queen’s Park Thursday, with a protest outside and a lobby day inside the provincial parliament

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

While Ontario’s nursing union held a mass protest outside Queen’s Park Thursday, a nursing lobby group was working on the inside, putting pressure on the Ford government.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) organized the protest with the support of allied labor groups. On stage before hundreds of nurses and supporters, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions Linda Silas led a cheer of “shut it down.”

She got a roar from the crowd for urging Doug Ford’s government to abandon its appeal of a court judgment that found its “stupid” public sector wage restraint legislation, which continued to suppress nurses’ wages, was unconstitutional.

Silas warned that nurses would leave without adequate compensation, worsening the province’s health-care labor shortage if it didn’t pay them better.

“Newfoundland Labrador looks even better every day,” she said.

The ONA is in mediation with the Ontario Hospital Association and has called it a “last-ditch effort” before moving to arbitration because nurses are essential workers and can’t strike.

Meanwhile, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) took a softer approach with its annual lobby day, hosting MPPs for breakfast, speaking with the media, and hosting ministers and opposition leaders for speeches and Q-and-A’s with nurses.

Long-Term Care Minister Paul Calandra opened his speech with a joke about the power RNAO CEO Doris Grinspun wields at Queen’s Park.

“So it’s a little nerve-racking when you have to speak in front of two of your bosses, the deputy premier and Dr. Doris.”

But neither he nor Sylvia Jones, the deputy premier and minister of health, came with any new promises for the nurses on their major priorities.

One of their key requests was establishing new nurse-practitioner-led clinics in areas with doctor shortages.

When Shannon Clausen, a nurse practitioner, pressured Jones to admit that primary care is in crisis and green-light new clinics publicly funded to solve it, Jones declined.

“Why don’t I use the word crisis?” she said. “Because I don’t want my mother or father to hesitate about going to the emergency department, about making a phone call to 911.”

It didn’t satisfy Clausen and the other nurses.

“I want to follow up with that and just say that people are already afraid to go emerg because of how long they have to wait in emerge because the emerges are overwhelmed and understaffed. And so, it is already a crisis,” said Clausen.

The RNAO says the government has had their proposal to open up new public nurse-practitioner clinics for over a year, but hasn’t moved forward.

Jones said she isn’t saying no to the proposal, but isn’t saying yes because her ministry has not yet done the due diligence to move forward.

The RNAO also accused the government of dragging its heels on allowing registered nurses to prescribe some routine medications, something it has agreed to in principle, and the RNAO has been requesting for over a decade. Jones said the ministry had begun the work with the College of Nurses on their regulatory proposals, the RNAO said the college gave its submissions on that to the government nearly four years ago.

Grinspun, visibly frustrated, said pharmacists asked for the power to prescribe some routine medications 18 months ago and were empowered to do so as of Jan. 1, 2023.

The government has also moved quickly to set up private surgical centres, alarming the RNAO and the nurses rallying outside of Queen’s Park, who urged the province to expand hours in publicly funded hospitals instead.

In a statement to The TrilliumJones’ press secretary Hannah Jensen touted the progress the province has made, including making it easier for internationally educated health care workers to practice in Ontario, which nurses have welcomed.

“Our all hands-on-deck approach to transform our health-care system and bolster our workforce will provide further connected, convenient care for all Ontarians,” she said.