BCNU elected representatives were armed with an ambitious agenda when they arrived in Victoria this October for a two-day visit aimed at bringing a number of important issues to the attention of decision makers from all political parties.
The trip to the provincial capital was an excellent opportunity for BCNU Council members to engage in face-to-face conversations with over 50 MLAs about the province-wide nursing shortage, staffing crisis and nurses' call for improved violence-prevention measures.
It also offered a rare chance to sit down with key ministers and opposition critics to help identify solutions to these challenges, and talk about collaborative ways to implement them.
BCNU President Christine Sorensen led the lobbying effort and made sure that every government official she met left with a better understanding of what nurses from all corners of the province and in every health-care setting are experiencing.
"The trip was an opportunity to make it very clear that we are unwavering in our commitment to finding solutions to health-system challenges like chronic short staffing and escalating violence, and educate MLAs and all decision makers about the crisis that our health-care system is in – and how this is impacting nurses everywhere," says Sorensen.
Sorensen was joined on the first day of lobbying by BCNU Vice President Aman Grewal and Executive Councillor for health and safety Adriane Gear, where they hosted a two-hour information session at the BC legislature.
In that time, they met with 25 New Democrat MLAs, including education minister Rob Fleming, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy, Minister of Jobs, Trade and Technology Bruce Ralston, and Minister of Transportation Claire Trevena.
"We are here today to ask you if your constituents will have the nursing care they need in the future," said Sorensen during her presentation. "While we appreciate your government's numerous announcements for new hospitals, and emergency departments, the reality is that vacancies and unfilled lines exist at almost every single health-care facility in BC. All the while, an aging population and increase in high-acuity patients continues to put pressure on BC's health-care system."
Throughout the session, Sorensen, Grewal and Gear all explained how the staffing shortage and ongoing workplace violence is pushing nurses out of the profession, and spoke about the many new nurses who leave after short stints due to workload pressures and unmanageable expectations. MLAs were also informed about the shocking number of nurses who are suffering from mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress, and what all of this means for their constituents.
"Almost 20 percent of RNs told us in a 2016 study that they were very likely to leave the profession altogether," Sorensen reported. "The most commonly cited reasons for wanting to leave nursing were workload, physical demands of the job, burnout and a perceived inability to provide safe, competent care in their current working conditions."
The statistics painted a dismal picture of the state of BC's health-care system, and shocked many of the MLAs in attendance.
"Our province is going to need 25,000 nurses to staff the health-care system in the next decade," Sorensen reminded the legislators. "Where are these nurses going to come from?"
Many MLAs thanked the nurses for the eye-opening information and vowed to work harder to address the concerns raised. A large number expressed gratitude for the professionalism and dedication of nurses everywhere – and vowed to take a closer look at what's happening in their own constituencies.
They also committed to further exploring the role that they and the provincial government can play in working to find solutions to the crisis.
MEETINGS WITH MINISTERS
Later in the day, Sorensen and Gear visited the office of labour minister Harry Bains. The conversation focused on the psychological health and safety of BC's nurses and the implementation of the Canadian Standards Association standard for psychological health and safety that is now part of the Nurses' Bargaining Association provincial collective agreement.
Gear took the opportunity to thank Bains for his work to ensure this year's enactment of legislation that now includes nursing on the list of occupations that have the presumption of mental injury. But she also pressed the minister to act on BCNU's request for properly trained security staff at high-risk sites around the province.
"We hope we can continue to work with you on initiatives like these that are aimed at making facilities safer for nurses and their patients," Gear told Bains. "There's still an unacceptable level of violence in health-care facilities around the province, and we need to start working with all levels of government to keep our nurses safe so they can provide the care all patients deserve."
Sorensen and Gear were back in the legislature the following day, but this time it was in the office of health minister Adrian Dix. The hour-long meeting was a rare opportunity to speak directly about the chronic nurse shortage and ask the minister directly when he will develop a provincial health-human resource plan to address the problem.
"Without a plan, very little will be done to address the need for more skilled, experienced nursing staff," Sorensen told Dix. "Close to 40 percent of nurses in BC are over the age of 50 and quickly approaching retirement. Meanwhile, BC ranks the lowest in the country for RNs and LPNs working in direct care per capita. We are asking for dedicated funding to address the critical nurse staffing shortage so that patients' needs can be met."
Dix said the staffing shortage is a "complex challenge" and recognized the moral distress many nurses experience when they are unable to provide safe patient care due to workload and overcapacity pressures. He defended his government's track record on investing in health care while acknowledging the work that still needs to be done to improve worksite safety and manage escalating workplace violence.
The meeting wrapped with an open-ended invitation for the minister to work collaboratively with BCNU on initiatives that would drive staffing and develop concrete solutions that would bring nurses to BC.
The need for collaboration was raised again at a meeting later that afternoon with opposition leader Andrew Wilkinson and health critic Norm Letnick. Both were interested to see the nurse staffing statistics and agreed there was a looming crisis that needs serious attention.
MLAs LISTEN AND LEARN
The evening of day two saw BCNU host a meet and greet at the Empress Hotel that was attended by dozens of MLAs from both sides of the house. A two-hour listen and learn session allowed BCNU council members to speak directly to their MLAs about specific issues in their communities.
Grewal worked in Surrey Memorial Hospital before being elected union vice president this year.
"I was pleased to have had the opportunity to speak about what I feel is in need of attention at Surrey Memorial, and the community at large," she said. "The hospital sees severe cases of overcapacity and we are almost always understaffed. Surrey Memorial continues to be one of the busiest hospitals in the region and things don't ever seem to get better."
The Victoria visit was a busy two days, and BCNU's continued calls for improvements for nurses – and the union's ongoing advocacy – came across loud and clear. For Sorensen, that made it all worth it.
"We came and people definitely listened. The staffing challenges that exist in this province are complex and it's going to take a joint effort from all sides to address the problem and bring relief to our members who work hard every day providing the best care they can. We owe it to them to make it better." •
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