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NDP leader's healthcare concerns front and centre during Vancouver Island tour

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Hot off a week-long Vancouver Island tour on the state of healthcare, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says protecting Canada's public health system is a top priority in the coming year.

As Parliament returned Monday, Singh said he expects to have a one-on-one conversation with Justin Trudeau to raise concerns about the threat of privatization and the acute lack of health-care workers that are hobbling communities and hospitals across the country.

Wrapping his tour in Victoria on Friday, Singh said he'll use the next sitting to rebuild, protect and find solutions for public healthcare.

“The public health-care system Canadians take pride in is at a watershed moment,” he said, pointing to Ontario and Alberta, which have announced they'll shift some surgeries to for-profit clinics to ease the burden on public hospitals.

But those schemes will simply drain already poorly staffed emergency and operating rooms at public facilities, making wait times even worse, he added.

After visiting various communities, including Campbell River, Comox, Nanaimo, Duncan and Port Alberni, Singh said the key message on the ground is there simply aren't enough health-care workers, whether at hospitals or long-term care facilities.

“Healthcare is getting really squeezed,” Singh told Canada's National Observer as his tour ended.

“People aren't getting the care that they need, and workers feel like they're not delivering the care they were trained to deliver.”

People are seeing long waits in emergency rooms or they can't find doctors, and emergency rooms are being shut down because there's not enough staff, Singh added.

Singh visited Campbell River, in NDP MP Rachel Blaney's riding, where three rural ERs in the North Island health region have faced repeated and prolonged closures. During Singh's tour, Blaney called on the federal government to develop strategies that attract and retain medical professionals in rural and remote communities.

These areas need recruitment and retention solutions that are different from urban centres, she said, adding the federal government doesn't have plans to get immigrant health-care workers working and living in remote regions.

The B.C. government announced $30 million in funding for immediate measures to stabilize healthcare in the region Friday, but the cash infusion isn't expected to immediately solve the staffing crisis.

There's got to be a national approach to recruiting, retaining and training health-care workers, Singh said, otherwise provinces are left trying to poach medical professionals from one another.

“That's just going to create a revolving door problem,” he said.

The federal government needs to get behind the push to train more medical professionals, he added. “We need to train a whole new generation of workers to open up more facilities and spaces in colleges and universities.”

There could be more effort to re-engage burnt-out workers, nurses and doctors who left the system during or after the pandemic by paying more attention to working conditions.

“And we need to retain those we already have to make sure those workers don't leave,” he said.

Aside from stepping up with more money for provinces, Ottawa also needs to speed up the recognition of internationally trained medical professionals, he added.

Currently, potential candidates have to deal with different layers of time-consuming, expensive provincial and national licensing bodies.

A streamlined national process applied across all provinces would speed up the integration of internationally trained professionals across the country, he said.

“We haven't really put any attention towards recognizing their international training or made it easy enough for people already living here to even consider doing it.”

Fast-tracking medical professionals applying for permanent residency in Canada and matching them with communities where health-care workers are needed are ways to realize the full potential of immigrants with medical training, he said.

Internationally trained professionals aside, the federal government needs to push for a national licensing system for Canadian professionals as well.

Many medical professionals in Canada are restricted to practising in a single territory or province, and obtaining other licences is often a long and expensive process. A pan-Canadian licensing system could ease the pressure on medical workers in rural and remote communities, Singh added.

“It would help folks who might want to work in rural communities across provincial boundaries or develop creative solutions with workers moving between multiple communities to fill in any gaps,” he said.

“We need to find ways to allow for flexibility in the workforce so that health-care workers can work across the country.”

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