Solving Manitoba’s severe staffing crisis in health care will be one of the greatest challenges facing the next political party that forms government after the Oct. 3 provincial election.

The lack of doctors, nurses and allied health-care staff in hospitals, clinics, personal care homes and home care services has driven up wait times and rendered basic medical services inaccessible for many Manitobans. It is, by far, the No. 1 obstacle to ending — or at least alleviating — the crisis in health care, one that was created largely by successive years of underfunding and failed reforms by the Progressive Conservative government.

It’s no surprise that all political parties in this election are promising to hire more health care workers. Without a significant increase in staffing levels, it is simply impossible to improve the quality of health care in Manitoba. No matter how much is spent on expanding hospitals, opening new clinics or creating new programs, the system will not heal without more front-line staff.

Manitoba’s NDP has promised to hire more health-care workers, including 100 additional home care personnel. The Liberal Party is proposing to recruit and retain workers by offering generous bonuses and making fee-for-service programs more attractive for physicians. The PC party has vowed to hire 2,000 more health-care staff. However, the latter will have to explain to voters why it allowed the situation to deteriorate as badly as it has during its seven years in government.

There are no simple solutions to this problem. Like all provinces, Manitoba is affected by a national shortage of health-care workers. All jurisdictions are competing for a limited number of health-care recruits.

Heavy workloads during the COVID-19 pandemic drove some frontline staff to early retirement. Verbal attacks on doctors and nurses during that period from anti-vaccine advocates likely made the situation worse.

Still, decisions made by the PC government in Manitoba prior to and during the pandemic contributed to the staffing shortage. The Tories’ hospital consolidation program, implemented between 2017 and 2019, forced the layoff and rehiring of thousands of workers. Health-care professionals were not consulted on the move and many felt unqualified for the new positions they were forced into. Some retired early and many moved into the private sector.

Government’s failure to bargain in good faith with nurses and allied health-care workers, who went years without new contracts, contributed to poor workplace morale and triggered early exits from the medical field. Those who remained on the job were forced to work longer hours to fill the gaps, causing even more to leave the industry.

It’s not enough now, though, for political parties in this election to simply claim they will hire more health-care staff. They must demonstrate to voters how they plan to do so. Parties must release details of their recruitment and retention strategies so Manitobans can scrutinize them.

Modest incentives such as bonuses or salary premiums may help, but they won’t be enough to attract and retain the number of staff required to stabilize the system. Political parties must show Manitobans they have realistic and concrete plans to eliminate the chronic vacancies that exist in workplaces throughout the health-care system.

This crisis won’t be solved with vague platitudes and superficial political promises.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.


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