The British Columbia government will pay fees for international nurses and help finance former nurses who want to return to health care in a push to get more workers into the system.
Premier David Eby says the government will also spend $1.3 million to set up a new pathway for internationally trained nurses to assess more applications much faster.
Candidates are waiting up to three years now, but Eby says the government’s goal is to cut that wait down to between four and nine months.
The changes mean internationally educated nurses will no longer be required to pay application and assessment fees upfront, which can be over $3,700.
The government will also offer financial support of up to $4,000 to cover applications, assessments and eligible travel costs for current nurses to re-enter the system, along with up to $10,000 in bursaries for any additional education they might need to get back to work.
B.C. Nurses Union president Aman Grewal attended the news conference and says the changes offer hope for a strained and understaffed health-care system.
Bargaining underway for B.C. nurses
Meanwhile, collective bargaining between the BCNU and the Health Employers Association of BC (HEABC) got underway last month, with the BCNU looking to negotiate an outcome that addresses the staffing crisis.
The union has stated that the pandemic, toxic drug crisis and climate crisis have all exacerbated an already overburdened health-care system. It has called for a focus on recruitment and retention strategies and the need to make workplaces more inclusive in order to attract and retain a diverse nursing workforce.
“Nurses want to see a contract that respects them for how hard they have been working over the past number of years, one that recognizes them as valuable professionals,” Grewal said in a Dec. 9 statement. “And they want to see a collective agreement that addresses their dire working conditions.”
Last month, the BCNU also filed province-wide grievances against HEABC including once against mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies, arguing the policies have resulted in nurses losing wages, benefits and seniority.
BCNU is seeking the reinstatement of the affected nurses and damages for their losses, as well as a declaration that the policies and actions of the health employers were unreasonable and violated the collective agreement and the BC Human Rights Code.
Hospitals on Vancouver Island have been challenged due to the ongoing nurse shortages, particularly in the North Island community of Port Hardy, wich has been experiencing nursing shortages leading to night-time ER closures.
The BCNU has said that retaining nurses in these areas is particularly difficult due to the remote location and high demand for private agency nurses to fill gaps.
The union suggested that providing better housing, flexible schedules, and childcare options, as well as paying for travel time, could help address the issue.
Island Health said in November it is working with the Ministry of Health and other partners to expand retention and recruitment activities, increase access to travel nurse programs, and invest in infrastructure improvements, among other efforts.
Another issue that could compound the situation is an anticipated surge in respiratory illnesses that has prompted the government to reopen 20 emergency operations centres across the province as of Monday.
The centres, which were originally set up to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, will provide a coordinated response during periods of increased demand on hospitals and will remain open for at least six weeks.
The move comes as hospitals in the province are experiencing an “unprecedented increase in demand,” with 10,226 patients in B.C. hospitals on Friday, a six per cent increase from the 9,637 patients on New Year’s Eve.
Health Minister Adrian Dix has urged residents to get vaccinated, stay home when sick and follow public health guidelines to help ease the burden on the health care system.
Watch the full news conference below: