As the Ontario government opens the door to surgeries in private clinics to ease surgical backlogs, it continues its war with nurses, forging ahead with its appeal of Bill 124.
This past summer, Ontarians faced more than 80 emergency room closures as hospitals struggled with nursing shortages. The nursing shortage is nothing new – prior to the pandemic, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontariom estimated the province fell short on 22,000 registered nurses compared to the rest of Canada on a per-capita basis. The Canadian Federation of Nurses Union (CFNU) conducted a study which found that more than one in four nurses suffered from symptoms of burnout going into the pandemic.
The pandemic only exacerbated these problems, as understaffed nurses found themselves treating sicker and more complicated patients. Thus, key aspects of patient care such as providing comfort were left uncompleted. The CFNU found that this affected the health of patients and caused further mental distress for nurses.
Yet, as the province and its hospital nurses enter new contract talks on Jan. 30, Ontario is appealing a court ruling that struck Bill 124 down as unconstitutional.
The provincial government has long ignored the needs of nurses and the passing of Bill 124 by the Ford government rubbed more salt in the wound. Bill 124 capped public sector wages, including those of nurses, at one per cent annually; an annual wage cut in a time of record-high inflation.
Ford claimed Bill 124 would protect our health-care system from runaway costs. But we have seen the opposite.
Ford claimed Bill 124 would protect our health-care system from runaway costs. However, we have seen the opposite. Facing shortages, hospitals are hiring temporary nurses, often at an hourly rate higher than what they would have paid a full-time nurse. At the University Health Network in Toronto, spending on temporary nurses increased by 550 per cent compared to pre-pandemic spending. Bill 124 backfired and is costing taxpayers more, not less.
Given the nationwide nursing shortage, governments and universities have implemented several policies to help tackle the matter at its source. At the federal level, the Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) has been reinstated. Previously eliminated in 2013, the CNO will act as the voice of Canadian nurses and provide strategic advice to Health Canada regarding policies.
At a provincial level, Ontario has given the green light for the College of Nurses of Ontario to expedite the registration process for internationally trained nurses. This change allows internationally trained nurses to practice while going through the process of full registration. It is expected that up to 5,300 nurses will benefit from this policy, enabling them to enter the workforce sooner. More recently, the Ford government has announced it will introduce legislation to allow doctors, nurses and other accredited health-care professionals from the rest of Canada to work in Ontario, poaching staff from other hard-hit provinces – Montreal’s Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital has had to redirect patients to other hospitals as emergency department nurses protested enforced overtime to make up for nursing shortages.
Regardless, none of the province’s efforts address the exodus of nurses in Ontario. Nurses are the backbone of our health-care system and the lack of funding for our nurses means not only a lack of staff to support patients, but also a lack of education and mentorship for the next generation of health-care professionals. Both newly graduated nurses and physicians look to experienced nurses for guidance.
Bill 124 was struck down by the Ontario Superior Court for interfering with the bargaining rights of nurses. However, as long as the possibility exists of Bill 124 being reinstated, nurses will not find relief.
We urge the Ford government to end its bad faith efforts to revive Bill 124. Anything less signals a blatant disrespect to a profession that deserves more. The courts have helped make a crucial step to fixing our health-care system by ending Bill 124 – appealing that decision compromises the quality and safety of our health care.