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Stanton obstetrics closure costly and preventable, MLAs say

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Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife on Aug. 21, 2021. It was revealed in the N.W.T. Legislature Friday that the closure of the obstetrics unit at the hospital between Dec. 10 and Feb. 21 will  cost the N.W.T. government $1,125,000 in transportation and accommodations.  (Liny Lamberink/CBC - image credit)
Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife on Aug. 21, 2021. It was revealed in the N.W.T. Legislature Friday that the closure of the obstetrics unit at the hospital between Dec. 10 and Feb. 21 will cost the N.W.T. government $1,125,000 in transportation and accommodations. (Liny Lamberink/CBC - image credit)

The current closure of the obstetrics unit at Stanton Territorial Hospital is costing the N.W.T. government $1,125,000 in transportation and accommodations alone.

On top of that, Alberta will be billing the government of the Northwest Territories for the costs of the births themselves.

These figures came to light in the Northwest Territories Legislature Friday in an exchange between Health Minister Julie Green and Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North.

"I know it's been reported for years that the OBS (obstetrics) has been asking for an additional staff person and there's some debate about whether that's needed," Johnson said. "But I think this has proven that one closure is easily more than the cost of funding that staff position."

Green said that she didn't know the status of discussions to recruit an additional obstetrics staff member but said that "maybe the value of a fourth position over the long term is that people can take time off," referring to the inability of Stanton staff to take their leave without someone to cover their shifts.

Part of the hesitancy to add that extra shift worker is that numbers of births have been declining in the territory but Green said she is still "very interested in" getting an extra staff member in the unit.

Travis Burke/CBC
Travis Burke/CBC

MLAs Katrina Nokleby and Lesa Semmler both pressed the health minister on how the staffing numbers could have reached crisis levels without the government intervening.

Both stated the issue had been a point of discussion for years and particularly in the months leading up to the current obstetrics closure.

Issues raised in letter 'dismissed'

In April, Nokleby received a letter from social worker and mental health counsellor Raymond Pidzamecky, who shared concerns he was hearing from clients who are nurses at Stanton.

In the letter, obtained by CBC News, Pidzamecky says that resident nurses have expressed feeling "defeated and discriminated against."

The letter details experiences of "eroding staff morale," and "stress and anxiety, which ultimately impacts on patient care."

Pidzamecky, on behalf of his clients, asks that a committee be established to review and address the issues "before we lose any more nurses to migration and burnout."

In submitting the letter, Pidzamecky said he "hoped the Health Minister would have said, 'wow this is serious,'" and engaged in "some kind of dialogue" to take steps towards a solution.

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Nokleby confirmed that she summarized Pidzamecky's letter to the health minister and was dismissed.

She said the response was a directive to mental health resources available to nurses managing stress and anxiety.

"What I'm hearing is a complete denial of any responsibility," Nokleby said.

The health minister was not able to speak to CBC News about this incident before the deadline for this story.

"This week in the House, I've tried to ask questions of the health minister as to how we've found ourselves in this situation, referencing questions I sent her in the spring asking what the department was doing to address the increasing burnout I was hearing about," Nokleby said in the Legislature Friday morning.

"Fast forward seven months and those concerns and the warning raised have now come to fruition."

Semmler, a former nurse, expressed similar frustration.

She pointed to statements she'd made in the Legislature as far back as May 2020 on the same issue.

"At this point, we're two years into it, I've been raising the issues, I've fought hard to make sure they became a priority and here we are today now, with this closure of obstetrics," she said.

"The minister said yesterday that there is no further closures but how do we know that," she said, referring to Green's response to questions about whether other hospital units could face similar staffing shortages that would involve further closures.

"We are in a crisis," Semmler said. "Our people are at risk in the Northwest Territories if we don't deal with this now."

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