Vacant mental health positions delaying patient care in P.A.

Keely Dakin
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Recently there have been up to 12 mental health care positions vacant in the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region (PAPHR), some of which have not been filled for three to five years.

The president of the Health Sciences Association of Saskatchewan, Karen Wasylenko, spoke at a press conference on Monday morning at the Holiday Inn.

Karen Wasylenko, president of the Health Sciences Association of Saskatchewan, stated her concerns about PAPHR during a news conference on Monday morning.


Clients in need of psychologists and therapists have been experiencing longer waiting lists, she said, as a result of PAPHR’s failure to hire sufficient staff.


As the mental health program receives funding for up to 30 professionals, 12 absent employees meant that there were 40 per cent fewer mental health professionals than there should be. This has resulted in much longer wait lists for people in need of many health-care services, Wasylenko says.


Wasylenko says that this is a widespread problem across Saskatchewan, with 203 positions across the province, not being filled last month.


However the problem in Prince Albert is particularly bad, she said, because of the high percentage, of positions that have been unfilled.


“This one is an example,” she says, “It is very disturbing that it is 40 per cent and it affects children, youths and adults.”


The length of time that certain positions have gone unfilled was of particular concern.


“Some of these positions have been vacant for the past three to five years.”


PAPHR chief executive officer, Cecile Hunt, acknowledges that several positions have not had permanent staff for extended periods of time.


“We have had some long-term vacancies and we are looking to fill them.”


She says that they have hired temporary staff to fill some of those holes for portions of time.


“All our vacancies, we would have had temporary workers, for periods of time.”


Wasylenko however did not feel that sufficient work has been done to remedy the problem.


Nine of the 12 positions are still vacant today, and another three eliminated, Wasylenko said.


Wasylenko also says that not enough of an effort has been made to advertise for those positions.


“Only two of the 12 have been advertised on the internal website,” let alone outside professional job forums, she said.


Last month, PAPHR said they expected they would have a surplus of $1.4 million for the budget year of 2011-2012. The province has also provided the region with a 3.5 per cent increase for the new budget year, beginning this week.


“We’re forecasting a surplus,” agrees Hunts. However, she said that surplus does not include that they must pay about $1 million in operating costs and property taxes. After that, Hunts says they expect to have about $400,000 in actual surplus.


“It is clear that much of the region’s budget surplus was built by leaving professional health care positions vacant for as long as possible, saving the region money, but reducing important health-care services in the process.” Karen Wasylenko

It was that surplus; combined with the highest vacancy rate in the province with caught the attention of Health Sciences.


“They reported a surplus, our concern was that the services are not being covered,” Wasylenko says.


She worried that the staffing shortage was being used to build the surplus.


“It is clear that much of the region’s budget surplus was built by leaving professional health care positions vacant for as long as possible, saving the region money, but reducing important health-care services in the process.”


However, Hunt says that their surplus is not related to them not hiring full-time staff.


“The dollars are there for those positions,” she continues, “We have funding, it is about finding the right individual who would like to live and work and provide service in our region.”


The problem, she says, lies in the calibre of the workers needed.


“Some of the positions require advanced degrees, such as PhDs,” she continues, “these are especially competitive positions.”


“PHD psychologists are highly skilled professionals,” she says, which are not easy to come by. She says that there is also a lot of competition to hire them by private companies, which may pay more or be in a region they would prefer to live.


She says they will continue to recruit professional workers, as they have been.


“There’s a variety of tried and true methods, that may not have worked as well recently.”


However they will also consider using professional websites to attract the attention of young, Internet savvy professionals.


“There is always a better way.”


Wasylenko says that to ensure better performance in the future, PAPHR and all other provincial health regions should be required to publicly report their budget, staffing levels, annual goals and regularly report on waiting lists. 


She says that as they receive more public money, they need to better serve their taxpayers.


“The region needs to report, they are receiving public money, they need to be reporting (on its use), setting expectations.”


“This is a case of accountability,” Wasylenko says.


“I hope they begin to put families and health first and that the positions are filled.”

Organizations: Health Sciences Association of Saskatchewan

Geographic location: Saskatchewan

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