Math on nurses doesn’t add up (Editor’s notes)

Cutting nurses to balance the books will only lead to a greater labour shortage in near future

Two and two is supposed to equal four. It’s what I was taught in elementary school, and it’s something that my calculator confirms for me today.

I’m doing this basic math to reassure myself because something isn’t adding up in Ontario’s health-care system. At a time when provincial health authorities across the country are aggressively recruiting nurses overseas, at least one Ontario hospital network is looking at trimming the number of nurses it employs.

Rouge Valley Health System, which operates hospitals in Toronto’s east end and parts of neighbouring Durham Region, has said it is planning to cut 220 jobs — including 72 nursing positions — and close 36 beds as it struggles to balance its budget. The usual finger pointing has ensued, with one side blaming the province for underfunding the system and the province pointing the finger back saying Rouge Valley has been poorly run.

How the cuts will shake down wasn’t known at press time, but the air of uncertainty hanging over these nursing jobs is not good for Ontario hospitals, residents or business. And it’s only going to get worse. According to an Ontario Hospital Association survey, 75 Ontario hospitals are forecasting deficits for fiscal 2008/2009. For 2009/2010, the number is expected to rise to 103 of the 151 hospitals that responded to the survey. In 2004, Ontario passed a law mandating all hospitals balance their budgets.

Juxtapose those numbers against the labour demographics. Ontario hospitals are looking at cuts to balance the books just as the labour pinch is expected to really begin. That’s the type of perfect storm the province doesn’t need.

George Smitherman, Ontario’s health minister, has been reassuring nurses, trying to convince them there won’t be mass layoffs. Both Smitherman and Rouge Valley have said that the majority of the positions being eliminated will likely come from retirements, buyouts and ordinary staff turnover. But layoffs aren’t off the table, and that’s simply not good enough when it comes to a resource as important as nurses.

Employers in the private sector wouldn’t be able to get away with treating skilled talent this way. If a homebuilder told all its carpenters and contractors that cuts had to be made and they might not have a job in a few weeks, how long do you think it would take those in-demand workers to jump to more secure work? The builder would be out of business in short order.

Smitherman said the nurses could expect to find jobs nearby, as the province is hiring an additional 9,000 nurses by 2011. But with threats of job cuts and layoffs, how can the province expect to attract new nurses? If the options are move to Ontario, to a shaky system, or move to Alberta and pretty much be guaranteed a job for life, that’s not going to be a hard call to make.

And this won’t just be a problem for Ontario. Nurses overseas don’t see Canada as a collection of provinces. If they hear of nurse layoffs in Toronto, they’ll assume it’s also happening in Calgary and Vancouver.

Ontario needs to fix this problem for the good of the province and the entire nation.

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