The top brass at Eastern Health met with union leaders, politicians and journalists Tuesday to outline cutbacks it says will result in $43 million in savings.
According to Eastern Health CEO Vickie Kaminski these cuts are necessary so it can stabilize its financial footing. Eastern Health has had deficits over the past four years totalling $82 million.
So it has decided to cut back or shake up a wide range of services, everything from who provides non-patient food to hours available to temporary employees.
So what exactly does this mean for Eastern Health staff? Nobody seems to know for sure — yet.
Union leaders expressed a mixture of concern and confusion Tuesday when speaking with the media while politicians spent part of the day arguing about whether or not the cuts would affect the quality of service.
Debbie Forward, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses’ Union, told reporters she needs more information from Eastern Health before she will have a solid understanding of the cuts, and what they mean for union members.
There was one bright spot in the announcement.
“We want to reassure our members that there will be no layoff of permanent staff,” said Forward.
“That is across the board for Eastern Health. I know there is tremendous amount of anxiety right now within the workforce around all these announcements and what that means. So, no permanent jobs will be affected,” she said.
But as far as the nurses’ union in concerned that’s where the good news from yesterday’s meetings ends.
Forward said she was told Eastern Health expects to cut the working hour equivalent of 115 registered nursing positions.
What exactly that means is unclear.
“We have no idea where those 115 positions are coming from, per say. So I need more information in that regard,” said Forward.
“But what I know from talking to my members is that they are flat out right now. And what they don’t want to hear today is to be told that they are going to have to do more with less. Because they know they are struggling in many areas to provide safe, quality, care to their patients based on the sector that they’re working in.
“So anytime I hear ‘we’re going to take so many nursing hours out of the system,’ I’m concerned about what that means to patient care ... and secondly what that means for registered nurse workload.”
Those concerns were shared by The Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees. NAPE represents more than 5,550 Eastern Health workers.
Union president Carol Furlong told media she was anxious when she walked into Tuesday morning’s meeting with Kaminski.
Like Forward, Furlong was left wanting more concrete facts.
“We still don’t have all of the information that we will need for our members,” she said. “The people who are temporary employees, some of them will have questions for us that we can’t answer at this point, because we don’t know where some people will be redeployed, for example, or whose job may be reduced in hours, or what other measures might be taken at a particular site or with a particular individual.”
The fact permanent employees will not lose their jobs as a result of Tuesday’s announcement did soften the blow somewhat for Furlong. However, she said temporary employees working full-time hours will face new uncertainties.
“For that group, it certainly will be a very difficult and stressful time.”
Overall, Furlong does not anticipate the cuts will benefit the health-care system.
“But if you’re taking positions out of the system, whether it be through attrition or whatever, that means they’re going to eliminate services, and it’s going to make the work life for individuals in the health-care system very difficult. … You can’t eliminate, regardless of how you do that, and expect the services are going to continue at a certain level that is acceptable to the people of the province.”
Liberal Leader Dwight Ball mirrored those concerns in the House of Assembly.
“Right now, if you have a patient who needs constant care, there is actually a person there supplying that,” Ball said to Health Minister Susan Sullivan during question period.
“We know that is one area that they are looking at reducing right now.”
Sullivan repeatedly emphasized the fact that no full-time permanent employees are getting laid off, and that the government doesn’t believe that services will change.
“The commitment and the resolve that Eastern Health has made is the very same commitment that the Premier has made,” she said. “There will be no reduction to programs; there will be no reduction to services. There will be no facilities closed in Eastern Health as a result of a program that they have undertaken on their own, Mr. Speaker, absolutely no reduction whatsoever.”
Sullivan also made it clear that what’s going on at Eastern Health now will also take place at the province’s other three health authorities in the future.
The goal, she said, is to use benchmarks from health-care systems in other parts of the country to ensure that the province isn’t paying more for the same services.
“With the other three regional health-care authorities, I’ve already had some discussions with the CEOs,” she said. “They’ve been looking for efficiencies and do that on a regular basis. We will now look in a more efficient manner by using this benchmarking process.”
NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said as far as she’s concerned, the government should be more aggressively reviewing all four health care authorities, especially when it comes to the ways that they work together.
New Democrats have been calling for a full, independent review of the health-care system for years.
“I think there’s a whole lot of inefficiencies because of the lack of co-ordination among authorities,” Michael said. “Also that’s why I think there has to be an external body to work with the four authorities to look at it from the total perspective.”
Eastern Health is expected to release further details on the rollout of these changes in the coming weeks and months. All of the changes are expected to take more than two years to complete.