Ontario wants to entice 2,500 health care workers a year to practise in communities hit with the greatest staffing challenges by covering their tuition at select postsecondary schools.
Premier Doug Ford, in London on Friday, revealed details of the province’s $142-million “learn and stay grant” that will cover tuition, books and other direct educational costs for students in return for a commitment to work in the region where they studied for up to two years.
Initially intended for only nursing students, Mr. Ford said the grant will also apply to medical laboratory technologist and paramedic programs in regions of the province facing a staffing crunch in these sectors.
“We’re bolstering our work force, building a pipeline of health care talent for growing and underserved communities,” Mr. Ford said. “This is a real win-win. We’re providing students with opportunity for great education and a rewarding career and we’re increasing the number of health care workers in underserved communities so that Ontarians in every corner of the province get the quality of care they need closer to home.”
The grant, with applications opening in the spring, is geared toward students enrolled in undergraduate or diploma nursing programs in northern, eastern or southwestern Ontario, laboratory sciences studies in the northern and southwestern regions and paramedicine in the north.
Paramedics have been in demand in Northern Ontario, where last fall, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) called for better staffing with 911 call volumes on the rise. In the northwestern community of Kenora alone, demand for paramedicine services increased by almost 17 per cent in 2021.
A list of eligible postsecondary institutions across more than a dozen communities has been posted on the province’s website and span from northern colleges, including in Thunder Bay and Timmins, to larger universities such as the University of Ottawa and Queen’s University in Kingston.
Recipients of the grants will be required to work a minimum of six months in the community they studied for every year of tuition covered. Any money received would need to be paid back if these conditions aren’t met.
Darryl Wilton, president of the Ontario Paramedic Association, said expanding the grant to paramedicine programs is a welcome move, but there needs to be more full-time positions to make an impact. Most of the paramedic jobs in the north are part-time, which Mr. Wilton said prompts the majority of new graduates to look to urban centres for full-time work.
The paramedic profession is experiencing a rapid rate of attrition, Mr. Wilton said, with about 30 per cent of workers coming up on retirement in the next five years.
“There aren’t a lot of full-time jobs in the north so if we’re going to be pumping paramedics through college programs, we need to have full-time employment for them at the other end of that,” he said.
Friday’s announcement marked the third time the Premier faced reporters this week to address issues in the health care system, which Mr. Ford said needs to be adjusted because the “status quo is not acceptable.” Hospitals across the province have been grappling with high patient volumes and staffing challenges in recent months as they continue to deal with COVID-19 and a surge of other respiratory viruses, including the flu.
Earlier in the week, the government unveiled a three-step plan to address the backlog of surgeries by moving to more privately operated clinics and allowing additional sites to open, including for-profit facilities. The plan was met with criticism from health care advocates, including concern that new sites could lure nurses away from the public system and worsen staffing shortages.
Then on Thursday, Mr. Ford said the government will introduce bills when the legislature returns next month in an effort to recruit more health care staff. The province plans to remove registration requirements for health care workers already licensed in another province in Canada, allowing them to work immediately in the sector. Last year, only 646 of the 12,648 new nurses registered in the province were educated in another Canadian jurisdiction.