HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s opposition parties pushed Monday for more public accountability from the government over the province’s struggling hospital emergency departments.
NDP Leader Claudia Chender called for Health Minister Michelle Thompson and provincial health authority CEO Karen Oldfield to appear before the legislature’s health committee on Thursday — a request that was later turned down.
The call came amid public concern over the recent deaths of two patients after lengthy waits in Nova Scotia ERs — many of which are overcrowded and understaffed.
“What we need is some transparency,” Chender said in an interview. “I think Nova Scotians are frightened and they’re upset and they deserve to understand what’s happening.”
Chender said an appearance before the committee is about public accountability, adding that it’s often the only way to get solid answers from officials.
“Often the information we (NDP) have comes redacted from the freedom of information process,” she said. “I think we’ve come to a point that the assurances we’ve been given over the last 18 months that things are improving simply aren’t accurate.”
Chender said her party is particularly interested in getting a response to a letter that was sent last week to Oldfield and Thompson by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.
The letter characterized the staffing situation at the Halifax Infirmary emergency department as a “revolving door” of junior and inexperienced employees, and included a list of 59 suggestions from nurses and other staff to address areas including staffing levels, recruitment and retention, security and morale.
“Committees are where we are able to ask senior bureaucrats details about what’s going on. Our health-care system is in crisis, so it’s only fitting that we use the tools available to us,” said Chender.
However, the Health Department said in an email that neither Thompson nor Oldfield would be able to attend the health committee this week because they are “actively working on ways to support changes to our health-care system and in emergency departments.”
The department said they would be attending a “summit” with leaders in the province’s health-care sector on Tuesday, and would be attending public consultations in Shelburne and Yarmouth on Wednesday as well as addressing the Halifax Chamber of Commerce on Friday.
Meanwhile, further political pressure was applied Monday by Independent MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, who has been advocating on behalf of the family of Allison Holthoff. The 37-year-old died following a seven-hour wait at the Cumberland Regional Health Centre emergency department in Amherst, N.S., on Dec. 31.
Smith-McCrossin’s office released a 16-point action plan for the hospital’s ER and highlighted a new online petition in support of the plan.
“Every day, for the next 16 days, I will be highlighting one action to address this situation,” she wrote in a letter to Premier Tim Houston.
Liberal Leader Zach Churchill, a former health minister in the previous Liberal government, cautioned that there’s no “silver bullet” for the ailing system but said immediate steps needed to be taken with the family doctor waiting list near 130,000 people and ERs over capacity.
“We have to get the non-urgent patients out of our emergency rooms,” he said, while admitting that he learned while in office that the financial arrangement for pharmacists was “not appropriate.”
Pharmacists can currently prescribe treatment for a number of minor ailments for a fee, but Churchill said they would treat more patients if those services were publicly funded.
Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia CEO Allison Bodnar said Monday pharmacists have the ability to assess and treat more than 30 minor ailments, including cold sores, nausea, minor sleep disorders and nicotine dependence.
“So it’s really a question of funding,” said Bodnar. “We hope the government is going to consider this as part of its plan to alleviate some of the terrible things we are all seeing right now.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2023.