By Richard Bell
The federal government’s refusal to include the three rural hospitals in HRM in the federal loan forgiveness program for doctors and nurses who agree to practice in rural areas may finally be coming to an end.
As the Cooperator first reported in 2019, back in 2013, the federal government established the Canada Student Loan forgiveness program for doctors and nurses. Under this program, doctors and nurses who agreed to practice in rural areas could receive loan forgiveness up to $40,000 for doctors and $20,000 for nurses.
But none of the beleaguered rural hospitals in HRM—Twin Oaks, Musquodoboit Valley, or Eastern Shore Memorial—could take advantage of this program because Employment and Social Development Canada, the department that administers this program, classifies all of HRM as Census Metropolitan Area, or urban. So none of these hospitals were eligible.
As the Cooperator reported in June 2021, the shortage of doctors and nurses has had devastating effects on the ability of the three HRM rural hospitals to keep their emergency rooms open. In 2020, emergency rooms in hospitals in the Eastern Shore Musquodoboit Community Health Board were closed for 5080.5 hours, more than 10 times the number of closure hours just five years ago.
In 2019, Peter Murphy, a high-ranking official with Statistics Canada, told the Cooperator that his agency was quite capable of identifying rural areas within HRM. He said that all that needed to happen was for someone with Employment and Social Development to sit down with Statistics Canada and develop an appropriate “place based” policy using Statistics Canada’s analysis of the rural areas within HRM.
On his health care campaign stop in Halifax on August 23, Premier Justin Trudeau announced billions in new federal health spending. In his remarks, he even mentioned Middle Musquodoboit and Sheet Harbour by name as places where the shortage of doctors and nurses were causing unacceptable levels of emergency room closures.
And buried in the billions was a $350 million “Rural Recruitment Strategy.” According to an August 23 tweet from MP Sean Fraser, this strategy would increase payments to health care professionals who chose to practice in rural areas, and would “expand access to those who practice in rural communities in HRM.” The strategy would also expand the list of professionals who qualify for Student Loan Forgiveness to dentists, pharmacists, dental hygienists, midwives, social workers, psychologists, teachers, and early childhood educators who choose to practice in rural communities.
In a phone interview on August 26, Fraser told the Cooperator that the federal government had not finished ironing out the details that would allow HRM’s rural hospitals to participate in the Rural Recruitment Strategy, but that it was his “full expectation that these hospitals will be included.”
Fraser said that figuring out how to deal with hospitals on the fringes of urban areas that with overlapping catchment areas had taken more time than anticipated, and that the pandemic had also slowed things down. But he highlighted Trudeau’s specific mention of two of the HRM rural hospitals as proof that the issue had now reached the highest level of the federal government: “I’ll bet my bottom dollar this was the first time a Premier has uttered ‘Middle Musquodoboit’ in the middle of a major campaign announcement!”