Hundreds protest ER closures in Harbor Breton, health minister promises recruitment priority

A crowd of protestors.
Hundreds gathered on Friday to protest the ongoing closures of the emergency room in Harbor Breton. (Georgina Ollerhead/Facebook)

For more than a year, the emergency room serving the Harbor Breton area has closed off and on — and last week, hundreds of area residents marched on the Connaigre Peninsula Health Center in protest.

When the emergency room in Harbor Breton closes, anyone who experiences a medical emergency must travel 223 kilometers to the nearest emergency room in Grand Falls-Windsor.

In an interview with The St. John’s Morning ShowGeorgina Ollerhead, co-organizer of the rally and former mayor of Harbor Breton, said that’s what happened when her 80-year-old father experienced a fall last March, while the emergency room was closed due to a lack of staff.

“When you experience something like that certainly brings to light, you know how devastating it is not to have doctors in your community,” she said on Monday.

Ollerhead said his father — who has since recovered — traveled two hours and 24 minutes by ambulance to the hospital in Grand Falls-Windsor, with the ambulance at one point needing to stop to check his vital signs.

“It was terrifying. It was absolutely terrifying,” she said.

According to news releases from Central Health, the emergency room, which serves several communities in the region, has been closed at least a dozen times this year, sometimes for days at a time. Ollerhead said by her count, the emergency room has been closed for more than 60 days.

The emergency room is next scheduled to close for 24 hours beginning Wednesday. After opening on Thursday, it will close again on Friday.

“It’s getting worse,” Ollerhead said. She said the support at last week’s rally was “phenomenal.” Ollerhead said she’s worried about how health-care shortages will impact her town.

“We’ve got a beautiful community of Harbor Breton, beautiful in the Coast of Bays, lots to offer, and is it going to deter people from coming? Is it going to deter the industry from coming? It’s scary.”

Recruitment is ‘top priority’: Osborne

On Monday, Health Minister Tom Osborne said staffing the Connaigre Peninsula Health Center was a “very top” priority.

“There are three very solid potential physicians for that area,” he said. “The health authority are working with those physicians and, you know, certainly my hope that we will see all three of those physicians to the area.”

He said because of the community’s distance to the nearest emergency room, the health authority is committed to staffing an emergency room, rather than implementing an urgent care center like in Whitbourne.

A bald, mustachioed man speaks into a microphone.
Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister Tom Osborne says recruitment for the Harbor Breton emergency room is a “very top” priority. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

According to Osborne, Harbor Breton is one of four areas with an additional $200,000 signing bonus for physicians, which can be stacked with other financial incentives.

“That is the most attractive incentive in all of Canada that we’re offering for Harbor Breton,” he said.

Osborne said he has a meeting planned in the area for the first week of June.

“It’s certainly my hope that by the time that meeting happens, we’ll have some of the human resources issues resolved for Harbor Breton area,” he said

Urgent care possible for St. Lawrence

Communities across the province are struggling with similar shortages. The emergency room at the US Memorial Health Center in St. Lawrence has been closed for months.

St. Lawrence Major Kevin Pittman said an urgent care center is on the table in that community, and Osborne presented the option to about 250 residents in a town hall meeting.

LISTEN: Community leaders talk about the impact of rural emergency room closures

St John’s Morning Show17:17St. Lawrence’s meeting with Eastern Health and residents’ rally to protest temporary closures

We’ve been hearing about emergency room and health clinic closures across the province a lot this year. We hear from the mayor of St. Lawrence, Kevin Pittman, who just held a public town hall with Eastern Health and the Department of Health. Following this we hear why south coast residents rallied to protest these closures on Friday, from co-organizer Georgina Ollerhead.

Pittman said after a month without an emergency room, the response from residents was positive.

“The reality of being able to get enough doctors in our US Memorial, as well as enough nurses to staff our long-term care facility, as well as an emergency-care facility just doesn’t seem like it’s practical in the province at this time,” he said.

Osborne said a family care clinic was coming to that area, too, though he didn’t give a timeline.

“Again, it’s a matter of recruitment,” he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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