Saskatchewan’s 2023-24 budget highlighted healthcare as one of its main priorities, with Emergency Medical Services (EMS) getting a small cut of the new funding.
The budget allocates $8.8 million to enhance EMS in rural and remote areas, support contracted EMS operators and upgrade systems and radios.
The budget delivers total health spending of $7.1 billion. The Ministry of Health received an increase of $431 million this year, for a $6.9 billion budget.
“It’s a great budget for ground EMS. It doesn’t meet everything 100 per cent, but that can’t happen over night,” Steven Skoworodko, the president of the Paramedic Services Chiefs of Saskatchewan (PSCS), said.
“Where they’ve allocated the money to go to in this budget, it’ll really help support retention. Some of that money is targeted towards an increase in funding so rural services can pay more and fund those positions so that the paramedics do want to stay in rural Saskatchewan.”
The PSCS highlighted three areas it wanted to see targeted in this year’s budget: supporting paramedic recruitment and retention, more operational funding and improving patient offload delays.
Skoworodko said he feels those were all addressed, but would like to see more help with the increased costs of operating ambulances in the future.
“A new ambulance is about $250,000 with nothing in it. If we can continue some advocacy and maybe look for future budgets that there’s a removal of PST on a brand new ambulance, that’ll definitely help ambulance operations,” he said, adding increased fuel costs is another ongoing concern in operations.
The Health Sciences Association of Saskatchewan (HSAS), the union representing some paramedics in Regina, said it’s not convinced the budget will help with widespread retention.
“It’s encouraging that healthcare has been made a priority by the government, but HSAS believes there needs to be a greater focus on EMS,” Karen Wasylenko, the president of HSAS, said.
“The $8.8 million is a very small percentage of the overall budget to improve a critical service within the healthcare system in this province.”
She said it’s unclear what the $8.8 million will do to get new people into jobs, or to keep the ones who are already working.
“While it sounds like a lot of money, across the province we have these gaps to fill and if we’re losing people, they have a lot of catching up to do,” she said.
“We need some real serious looking here and it’s time for action to get positions filled, in Regina as well as in rural and remote areas.”
In January, the provincial government announced 24.5 new full time equivalent paramedic jobs in Regina.
As of Friday, the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) confirmed eight full-time positions have been filled. Six of those were previously internal casual positions. Four casual paramedic positions were added.
“Very shortly, ten more full-time positions will be posted with an estimated start date of June 15,” the SHA said in a statement.
The NDP said the budget allocation for EMS is a “drop in the bucket” for what’s needed.
“This doesn’t match the need that we’re hearing out there,” NDP MLA Vicki Mowat said.
“We hear from folks consistently that the supports are not there when they need them. I think that’s evidenced when we see people having to waiting hours for an ambulance to show up and hours at the emergency room to be offloaded by the ambulance.”
In addition to the new funding for EMS, the health minister said funding focused on other sections of the health care sector and across hospitals should alleviate some pressures felt by paramedics.
“We’ve had a 40 per cent reduction in our ER wait times with our ambulance crews. We need to improve on that, but we’re moving in the right direction,” Merriman said.
“It’s making sure that it’s efficient throughout our health care system, that people are getting discharged in time so we can create the space for people that are having an emergency situation.”
PLAN TO RECRUIT
The Minister of Health hopes new seats for paramedic training at Saskatchewan Polytechnic will help fill positions in the future.
“Those individuals take about a year to 18 months to be able to go through the system, so once those go through it’ll help out,” Merriman said Thursday.
“We’ve had very good success in recruiting paramedics. Not just in larger centres, but rural as well.”
The Paramedic Services Chiefs of Saskatchewan has also been involved in recruiting more emergency medical responders.
“It’s definitely a lower level but it’s a much shorter course. It’s only an 80 hour course. People are able to go through and write a licensing exam, then they’re licensed to do more basic driving and basic skills along with a primary care paramedic or an advanced care paramedic,” Skoworodko said.
“There’s a lot of opening positions across the province.”