By Richard Bell
The Cooperator’s investigation of the injustice of HRM’s rural residents being denied access to a federal loan forgiveness program for family doctors and nurses has resulted in a major step towards righting this injustice. If all goes well, HRM’s three rural hospitals will be getting a powerful new tool for recruiting more doctors and nurses to end their frequent emergency room closures for lack of staff.
In a letter to Central Nova MP Sean Fraser dated April 25, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Patty Hajdu thanked Fraser for “the work that you have done to highlight this very important issue. As a result, for the purposes of this particular program [the Student Loan Forgiveness Program for Family Doctors and Nurses], I have asked my officials to consult with Statistics Canada to see if we can determine what constitutes an underserved rural or remote community in a more equitable way that would not negatively impact other regions.”
Minister Hajdu copied this letter to Nova Scotia’s Minister of Health and Wellness Randy Delorey, and to three other federal ministers: Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development; Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Rural Economic Development; and Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas-Taylor.
Minister Hajdu’s letter comes on the heels of an investigative report by the Cooperator published online on April 10, “Cooperator Investigation Reveals Surprise Opening for Recruiting Doctors in Rural HRM.” At issue was the Department of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour’s decision to classify HRM’s three rural hospitals (Eastern Shore Memorial, Twin Oaks Memorial and Musquodoboit Valley Memorial Hospitals) as “urban” simply because their location within the boundaries of HRM put them inside what Statistics Canada classifies as a “Census Metropolitan Area.”
As “urban” hospitals, these hospitals were ineligible for the federal Student Loan Forgiveness Program for Family Doctors and Nurses. For doctors and nurses who agree to practice in rural areas, this loan forgiveness program provides substantial incentives. For doctors, the program allows for up to $8,000 per year for 5 years of rural service, or up to $40,000; for nurses, the program allows up to $4,000 per year for 5 years, up to a total of $20,000.
The Cooperator investigation led to Statistics Canada, where Peter Murphy (Chief, Geographic Concepts, Standards and Areas, Statistical Geomatics Centre, Strategic Data Management Branch), told the Cooperator that StatsCan was perfectly capable of distinguishing rural areas with the larger HRM CMA.
Murphy said StatsCan recognized the existence of urban areas inside CMAs. “Each hospital can be assigned (or geo-located, based on their address, GPS coordinated or digital building footprint) to either a Population Centre or rural area – therefore allowing a person or a process to decide what makes sense or what would be the most applicable, etc.”
Murphy said StatsCan has already worked with other government agencies “to develop place-based policies that intend to use one or more of definitions maintained by Statistics Canada….In my experience, once contact is made, a critical part of this type of consultation includes a meaningful discussion on the matter of whether or not an existing definition fits with the intent or purpose of the policy and/or program, and how a policy or program would benefit (or not) from using the full extent of any one or combination of these definitions and data.”
There was also some grassroots political pressure on Liberal politicians to solve this problem quickly. Former HRM City Councillor Jackie Barkhouse got the attention of PC MLA John Lohr, who contacted her after reading a scathing her scathing op-ed in the Chronicle Herald calling for immediate action to allow HRM’s rural programs to participate in the loan forgiveness program. Lohr brought the issue up on the floor during question period at the end of the most recent legislative session.