Health minister wrong to pass the buck
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Ministers of the Crown often toil under the weight of unfair expectations. They are regularly expected to know everything about their departments, all the time, and be involved in even the most minute issues within them.
The reality is that these are sometimes unfair expectations, given the size and complexity of some government departments.
However, the principles of ministerial responsibility dictate that even in those instances where ministers are not directly involved in every decision within their departments, they are still ultimately accountable for those decisions. That is a lesson Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon has apparently yet to learn.
Ms. Gordon was recently confronted by opposition critics after highly trained nurses in Health Sciences Centre’s forensic nursing program resigned. The nurses perform critically important physical examinations of the survivors of sexual assault to collect forensic evidence. Without proper staffing in that HSC unit, the women suffering the trauma of assault have little or no hope of seeing justice done.
When pressed by reporters about the resignations, Ms. Gordon shifted the blame to “health system leaders” for not finding a way of living up to promises the Progressive Conservative government made to keep the program fully staffed. Ms. Gordon clearly does not understand the influence her government’s policies — particularly in fiscal matters and labour relations — have had on the nursing profession in general, and the forensic nursing program in particular.
There is only one full-time nurse dedicated to the forensic program. The remaining shifts are covered by a pool of other nurses trained in the collection of criminal evidence. Those are the nurses that are resigning from this program.
Nobody is entirely sure where they have gone. They could be focusing their work on other areas of the health-care system. Or, they could follow hundreds of their colleagues and leave the public system altogether to work for private nursing agencies. Either way, the resignations at the program are evidence of a much bigger problem the PC government has with nursing resources.
Whether it was the unilateral decision to move nurses all over the city as part of its effort to reorganize Winnipeg hospitals, or the deliberate delays in negotiating collective bargaining agreements — the Manitoba Nurses Union went more than four years without a contract before its last deal was reached — nurses in this province have not been treated well by the current government.
Some of the blame falls at the feet of what Ms. Gordon called “health system leaders.” The minister is not responsible for the tenor or tone of interactions with nursing union leadership, or with nurses on the front lines, for that matter. But she does have primary responsibility for decisions around financial resources and how nurses are treated as a profession within the health-care system.
When hospital programs were redistributed, and emergency rooms closed, Ms. Gordon’s government did not pause to consider the impacts this would have on nurses.
On that basis, it would not be an exaggeration to say that at best, nurses have been an afterthought to the macro policies imposed by the Tories on the health-care system. When hospital programs were redistributed, and emergency rooms closed, Ms. Gordon’s government did not pause to consider the impacts this would have on nurses. That failure to consult in advance has done more to feed the nursing shortage — particularly by driving nurses to other provinces or to the private sector — than any other single policy.
Health system leaders can only solve problems if they are given the necessary support and resources. If they are forced to do things they do not believe in, or are starved of the financial resources necessary to feed the system, then they will surely fail.
In the health-care system the Tories have built, it is the minister and her government — and not system leaders — who are to blame.