The Future of HRHSSA, pt. 2

These questions are a follow up to the questions I asked on May 25, 2017.

QUESTION 787-18(2)

MR. SIMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. It has been quite a talkative question period. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it up here. Mr. Speaker, last week I discussed the benefits and the challenges of bringing the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority into the NWT Health and Social Services Authority. The Minister stated that the roadblock to this was the cost of bringing Hay River’s authority’s pension into the public service, probably somewhere north of about $20 million now. Meanwhile, the government is topping off this pension to the tune of $1 million a year. Today, I want to address some questions to the Minister of Health, to begin determining how this issue is affecting Hay River.

First off, I believe it is possible for employees employed by the NWT Health Authority to work in any region covered by that authority. Are there impediments to employees from the Hay River Authority working at NWT Health and Social Services Authority facilities, for example, for professional development purposes and vice versa? For example, if Hay River needed a position covered for a certain amount of time? Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

MR. SPEAKER: Masi. Minister of Health and Social Services.

HON. GLEN ABERNETHY: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, it certainly is more complicated for a GNWT employee to do a transfer assignment into an organization like the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority, because it is outside the collective agreement. It is outside the public service. If an individual within the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority was looking for a developmental opportunity, we could put him or her on a transfer assignment, which really would have no impact on the benefits. They would still be employees of the public service, and we could move them into a different job for a developmental opportunity.

If we wanted to do the same for an employee of Hay River, for instance, we wanted one of our RNs in Hay River to maybe come to Stanton and spend some time in the emergency room, which has a higher level of acuity and more challenging cases, that person would likely have to leave or at least go on a leave from the Hay River Health and Social Services, which could have adverse effects on their pension. They wouldn’t be earning pension with Hay River, and then come on a job opportunity which they would probably have to apply for through normal processes.

There are certainly some drawbacks for the employees of the Hay River Authority, if they want to go to other areas of government and gain some skills. The same is true back, Mr. Speaker. We have an individual in one of our communities in the Northwest Territories, including Yellowknife, who wanted to go to Hay River for a developmental opportunity. They have a fantastic dialysis unit down there. Because it is a different public service, it would complicate our ability to put that individual in there. There is difficulty both ways.

MR. SIMPSON: Thank you to the Minister for that answer. As a follow-up, there was recently a health crisis in one of the regions, and staff from Stanton was dispatched virtually immediately, as far as I understand, to provide assistance in that region. Does the fact that Hay River is not part of the Territorial Health Authority mean it would be more difficult to do this for Hay River, if we needed emergency staff in Hay River?

HON. GLEN ABERNETHY: We would find a way to make it happen if there was an emergency situation in Hay River and they needed immediate support. We would find a way, but it would be more difficult. You would probably have to involve a number of memorandums of understanding to allow health professionals from outside that authority to actually work in that facility and provide care in that facility. It is possible. We would do it because we don’t want the residents of Hay River and the surrounding area to be adversely affected. From an operational point of view, it would definitely be more complicated.

I would like to say that there is significant goodwill on both the department and territorial authority when working with Hay River, and great goodwill back, but it is certainly a more complicated situation.

MR. SIMPSON: Thank you to the Minister, again, for that answer. The Hay River Health Centre serves a large area of the South Slave, and because of the size and sophistication of the new facility, it has the capacity to house additional services, including services that are currently only available in Yellowknife. This would allow South Slave residents to be treated in Hay River, which would save costs on travel and justify the costs of the new health centre. Would bringing the Hay River Health Authority into the NWT Health Authority facilitate new and expanded services being implemented at the Hay River Health Centre?

HON. GLEN ABERNETHY: With the single territorial authority here in the Northwest Territories, it gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate the programs we are providing and where we are providing them with the possible opportunities to reach out with additional services, given that we have a collaborative system. That is obviously complicated in Hay River, recognizing that they are outside the public service, but it is a fantastic new hospital. It has a long life. It was built to grow and meet the changing needs of the region and the community. In short, Mr. Speaker, the answer is yes, it is an area that would be great for expansion, but there are complications given that they are outside the public service.

MR. SIMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Finally, the Hay River Health Authority has problems attracting physicians. It seems like we are always understaffed. We are always relying on locums to a greater extent than, say, Yellowknife. Hay River is competing to hire from the same pool as the NWT Health Authority. Is the Minister aware if the underperforming pension at the Hay River Health Authority is a factor in its inability to recruit staff? Has he heard of this? Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

HON. GLEN ABERNETHY: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, just to be clear, medical professions in the Northwest Territories are at a different collective agreement, a different bargaining block, and they have different pension plans and a different salary system. We don’t really have that problem with physicians at a territorial level. They can go to Hay River; they have rights in Hay River and Stanton. Where it is a problem is with the staff, the unionized staff within the Hay River Authority, but unionized staff and staff outside the Hay River Authority. I have had the opportunity to talk to individuals who would really like an opportunity to work in the Hay River Authority, because it is a great new building. It is a great community. There are lots of opportunities there, but are unwilling to consider employment in Hay River because they don’t want to lose their GNWT pension, which is a Cadillac compared to the K-car that is the Hay River pension that we have to put new tires and do a tune-up on every year just to keep it on the road. So there are individuals who are worried about going to Hay River, and, at the same time, there are employees within the Hay River Authority who would probably like the opportunity to do developmental assignments outside the Hay River Authority, but leaving that employ will impact their pension and their future retirement, so there are concerns.

These are issues that are not new. I have made commitments in this House before that I am committed to bringing Hay River into the public service. I have directed the staff to redo the business case in light of where we are today to see if we can find a way to bring that forward. It is going to have to compete against a lot of different initiatives, but I believe it is the right thing to do. We will continue to work to find a way to make that happen.