Program extension good news for northern hospitals

By Mike Stimpson
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Thunder Bay Source

KENORA – News that the Ontario government is extending funding that helps rural and northern hospitals avoid temporary ER closures is music to Ray Racette’s ears.

“We were certainly hoping for it, and we certainly were very pleased when we learned that it was indeed being extended,” the Lake of the Woods District Hospital president said Friday.

The province initiated the Temporary Locum Program during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program pays physicians a premium for temporary work placements at hospitals.

Many northern hospitals rely on such fill-in doctors, called locums, from urban areas to keep ERs open round-the-clock.

Northern and rural hospitals were notified recently by memo that the program will now continue until the end of next March. It had been set to expire on Sept. 30.

“We still require the incentives to maintain staffing,” Racette said. “We’re going to need it for some time to maintain staffing at adequate levels.

“Anything like that helps.”

Dean Osmond, president of the Meno Ya Win Health Centre in Sioux Lookout, also welcomed the news from Queen’s Park.

“Our Emergency Department has been open 24 hours a day, seven days of week with no reductions to service,” he said.

“The funding announcement is extremely important to keeping our Emergency Department open as we are highly dependent on locum physicians to help maintain our service.”

Some hospitals in the North saw disruptions in Emergency Department service during the pandemic, but not Kenora’s hospital.

“We’ve never closed, and we will never close,” Racette said. “I think that’s a testament to the hospital’s character.”

The Kenora ER gets 50 to 100 visits per day, he said, and a temporary closure would have ripple effects beyond its premises.

Hospitals in Dryden and other communities would have an added burden, and there would be an impact on ambulance service as ambulances would face longer drive times, he said.