Julie Green at a news conference in 2021. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
NWT government employees can now earn up to $2,000 every time they help the territory recruit a nurse or physician.
Unveiling a suite of measures to tackle the territory’s healthcare staffing crisis, the GNWT also said it will help pay for health workers’ families to visit them this Christmas and cover costs for international staff moving to the NWT.
Paramedics will be brought in to help deliver healthcare in smaller, more isolated communities.
Thursday’s announcement followed the publication of survey results that show most NWT nurses have considered quitting in the past two years and far fewer are happy in their jobs than was previously the case. Many say they are burned out, work 10 hours of overtime or more each week, and cannot use the vacation or education benefits to which they are entitled.
Health minister Julie Green said Thursday’s measures “aim to attract new staff in key areas and add options for more flexible staffing in the short term, as part of our phased approach to stabilizing services.”
Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek said her government would continue to explore longer-term solutions.
A standout measure announced on Thursday is the referral program, which offers NWT government workers the prospect of $1,000 “if they refer a registered nurse or nurse practitioner who is then hired by the GNWT to fill a hard-to-recruit, front-line indeterminate or term position,” the territory stated in a news release.
Green said the initiative was based on feedback that suggests most nurses learned about opportunities in the NWT through word of mouth.
The referral fee rises to $2,000 once the new hire has been in post for one year. The same fees apply to referrals of physicians.
The exact circumstances in which those fees are payable were not clear, such as how the GNWT determines whether a position is hard to fill or not. The wording used – staff “may be eligible” to receive the fee, the territory stated – was vague.
Asked why the referral fee was only available to GNWT staff and not all NWT residents, Green said: “The intention was to make the best of the opportunities we have in-house, not to say that there aren’t people in other professions and parts of the NWT who could be helpful, even though they don’t work within the GNWT.”
Wawzonek suggested the program could expand if it proves successful.
“We’ll see how they work,” the minister said of Thursday’s measures. “If they work well, perhaps they can be expanded. There are six different things we’re already going to try.
“It’s not meant to be the end. We’re just getting back the nursing survey and employee satisfaction survey, and we’re not just going to walk away and sit on them.”
Paramedic use ‘an experiment’
The NWT government said the contracting of paramedics from northern companies would provide acute care support to smaller communities “and assist health centres and Stanton Territorial Hospital during emergency visits, patient assessments and management.”
Green said adding paramedics, a tactic being copied from Nunavut, would “alleviate some of the pressure that comes from increased workloads and ensure we meet the acute care needs of NWT residents.” She said Nunavut had deployed up to 80 paramedics at a time, as had northern Quebec, and the approach was “tried and true.”
However, the minister later acknowledged using paramedics was “an experiment” to see if the backgrounds and training of paramedics can support the work of nurses.
“I have confidence, based on the Nunavut example, that nurses and paramedics will be able to work effectively together,” said Green, adding a trial had been conducted in Fort Providence.
At the moment, the NWT’s health authority says roughly a third of the territory’s communities are receiving only emergency health services because of staffing shortages.
Across the health authority, Green said, the vacancy rate is 26 percent.
No update on 20-percent hiring target
The measures announced on Thursday, costing a total of $2.3 million, are not tied to the collective bargaining agreement that governs thousands of NWT government staff, Wawzonek said, and did not require union backing, which has been a prior sticking point. She said there was “continuous dialogue” with the Union of Northern Workers on the broader issue of staffing.
Other newly announced measures include a payment of up to $2,000 to help family members visit when healthcare workers are scheduled to work over the coming holiday season – another initiative borrowed from Nunavut.
The GNWT also said it will pay the travel costs of physicians, nurse practitioners and registered nurses living abroad who come to work in the NWT, and will expedite the licensing process for locum physicians.
Onboarding specialists will be hired to help new workers settle in after many nurses said the orientation they had received was inadequate.
The NWT government says it is still trying to meet a mandate commitment made in 2019 to grow the territory’s healthcare workforce by 20 percent, but Green said she had no detail regarding how close her government is to that target with one year remaining before the next election.
“Competition across the country has made it harder for us to be confident we can reach that goal,” she said. “I can’t say with 100-percent confidence that we will.”