The Horizon Health Network and the provincial government are facing a barrage of criticism for closing weekend evening and overnight emergency services at Sackville Memorial Hospital without any consultations.
“I’m disappointed that we were not approached until the last minute,” says former Mayor Pat Estabrooks, who now serves as chair of the Hospital Foundation. “I don’t think there’s a lot of details on why [this is happening] other than nursing shortages.”
Estabrooks said she has serious doubts about the decision to close the Sackville emergency room (ER) weekend evenings and overnights starting yesterday.
The indefinite closures will continue at least until September, meaning that the Sackville ER will be shut down from 4 p.m. until 8 a.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
During an online news conference on Friday, Horizon Vice President Geri Geldart said that the closings are necessary because three of the nine nursing positions in the local ER are vacant.
“The Sackville Memorial Hospital staff have held this service together for quite some time,” she told reporters.
“They’ve worked extra hours, they’ve worked overtime, they’ve changed their schedules with really very limited notice and they’ve done it all so that they could maintain the coverage of the service in the emergency department,” Geldart said.
“We have to balance our responsibilities to provide health care with the need to provide our staff with a reasonable amount of vacation time and given the past year with all of the pressures that everybody’s experienced with respect to COVID, it’s even more important that we give our staff the opportunity of having a small break.”
Geldart said Horizon is working on recruiting more nurses and is in touch with a small number who have expressed interest in working at the Sackville hospital, but she could not give a definite date when the weekend closures might end.
‘Thin edge of wedge’?
“The concern I would have with all this is that there’s no very clear plan about re-instituting the service and there’s no commitment to that,” says retired Sackville doctor Ross Thomas.
He notes that in February 2020, Horizon and the province announced that all overnight emergency services in Sackville and at five other rural hospitals would be shut down, before protest rallies forced the Higgs minority government to cancel its plan.
“Knowing the Horizon administration wished previously to curtail services in hospitals and now this is a good excuse to say, ‘Well, you know we tried, but we can’t staff it so therefore we’re going to do what we were going to do anyway,” Thomas adds.
He says Horizon may be doing a trial run to see how the public reacts.
“If this is an essential service, it needs to be staffed,” he says, “and obviously, they’re taking the attitude that this is not an essential service…The concern is that this is just the thin edge of the wedge, it’s death by a thousand cuts.”
‘It’s big and it’s bad’
Newly elected Sackville Town Councillor Sabine Dietz says full emergency room services are essential in Sackville for economic development and attracting new residents, businesses and doctors as well as for students at Mount Allison University.
“I think personally we can’t let this go quietly, we can’t just accept this because it is part of the steps of reducing the services that we have,” Dietz says, while emphasizing that she is speaking for herself and not on behalf of town council.
“I think it’s big and it’s bad.”
She says that while the provincial health minister talks about welcoming new nurses, they are currently working without a new contract. (Their previous one expired in 2018 and according to union president Paula Doucet, they are the lowest paid registered nurses in Canada).
“Are we surprised, all of a sudden at having (nursing) shortages?” Dietz asks, adding that the health authorities are now using them to justify cuts.
“Of course, it had to happen,” she says. “The way it’s lined up with the intent of closing some of Sackville’s services, with the lack of training of nurses in the province, with the lack of recruitment in the province, all of that, it was just a matter of time in my opinion.”
Higgs broke promise?
Local Green MLA Megan Mitton, who is currently on maternity leave, issued a statement on Facebook that said cutting Sackville ER services to deal with a province-wide nursing shortage isn’t an acceptable solution.
“I have requested that the Minister of Health and CEO of Horizon take immediate steps to consult with local stakeholders to create a new plan that will ensure that emergency health needs are met even as we navigate a difficult time,” Mitton wrote.
“I have faith that the creativity and commitment of local health professionals and engaged community members are up to the challenge.”
Meantime, in the legislature yesterday, Green Party leader David Coon asked Premier Higgs why he had broken the promise he made last year to maintain full ER services at rural hospitals including Sackville Memorial.
Answering on Higgs’s behalf, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard called the Sackville ER closures temporary.
“The issue is, Mr. Speaker, if you do not have doctors, if you do not have nurses to have in those emergency rooms, you risk the safety of every patient and staff member by keeping them open,” she added.
“This is not a permanent closure, Mr. Speaker. This is an action taken to support the summer staffing shortages that are certainly going to happen.”
For her part, former Mayor Estabrooks says Sackville can’t accept nursing shortages as a reason for cutting ER services.
“I realize that both nurses and doctors have had a rough year,” she says. “A lot of them are very tired and they need vacations and I understand all of those things, but I think they’ve had sufficient time to look at the situation here at our hospital and do the replacements that are needed.”
Estabrooks says the ad-hoc committee that has been fighting for the hospital will be sending a letter to Horizon questioning the ER closures.
“Also, I think it’s time to have a public reaction to this too in person. I think we need a rally again and just say, ‘We’re not going to stand for this.'”