Rural paramedics union rings summer alarm
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As Manitobans prepare for summer holidays, the union representing rural paramedics is warning popular vacation destinations also have some of the longest ambulance response times.
Rural emergency medical service response times have increased over the last five years, along with the volume of calls for help, as staffing levels have decreased, said the head of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals.
MAHCP obtained the Shared Health data through a freedom of information request.
“The basic message is that paramedics in rural Manitoba take up to 30 per longer to respond to medical emergencies compared to pre-pandemic,” said union president Jason Linklater.
The longest response times, and the most dramatic increases, were reported where many Manitobans will be travelling this summer, he added.
From July 30 to Sept. 1, 2022, response times in Prairie Mountain Health region were averaging 46 minutes, with Interlake-Eastern reporting 47.65 minutes. From Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2018, the times were 35.45 and 36.47 minutes, respectively.
“People should plan ahead and be careful and be safe, so that hopefully they don’t have to rely on the services of the paramedics,” Linklater said in an interview Thursday.
“We’ve had discussions with the rural municipalities, and we know that people are waiting an hour or longer for an ambulance to come,” he said. “We know we’re going into summer season, where Manitobans are heading into the Interlake area and the Prairie Mountain area where we have some of our worst deficiencies in terms of staffing ambulances.”
The union also pointed to Shared Health data that show emergency medical call volumes have increased 50 per cent across all rural regions compared to 2018.
A Shared Health spokesperson said Thursday residents are encouraged to contact 911 in an emergency, and calls will continue to be triaged and prioritized based on acuity.
The rural paramedics have been without a contract for more than five years.
On Wednesday, NDP Leader Wab Kinew presented the Shared Health information to the legislature showing there are 87 fewer rural paramedics compared to 2020-21.
He asked the Progressive Conservative government to explain the reduction and why there were only 617 paramedics still holding full- or part-time or casual positions this year.
On Thursday, in question period, Kinew called out Premier Heather Stefanson again for rural ambulances being understaffed.
Stefanson responded by touting the $54-million ambulance service funding arrangement with the City of Winnipeg announced Wednesday, which includes the hiring of 20 more paramedics.
“We recognize there’s more work to do,” she said. “We’ll continue to work together to ensure those ambulatory services are there for Manitobans.”
Kinew said leaving rural paramedics who are paid less than their city counterparts without a contract for so long is making it harder to retain those who remain.
The premier said contract negotiations continue.
“We are confident that those negotiations will come to a final resting place to ensure that there’s a fair deal reached for those paramedics,” Stefanson told the house.
A Shared Health spokesperson said contract negotiations with a mediator are ongoing and confidential. In the meantime, work to recruit new paramedics and fill available shifts is ongoing, the spokesperson said.
The recent addition of a dedicated, low-acuity inter-facility transport program in Brandon, Selkirk and Winkler/Morden will allow more paramedics to be available to respond to emergency calls and high-acuity transports, they said.
“We’re also exploring options on licensing for first responders, as that is an issue that rural communities have expressed interest in.”
Linklater said the government doesn’t appear to recognize the urgency of the situation or get the rural paramedics’ message: “This crisis is getting worse and you must act now to retain the paramedics we have left.”
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.