Winnipeg Regional Health Authority reports modest deficit as health-care reform stabilizes

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has posted its first deficit in three years, as COVID-19 hit and the health-care system stabilizes itself following a sweeping overhaul in how its services are delivered.

In its latest annual report, the WRHA reported a $5-million deficit on core operations in the 2019-20 fiscal year, following two years of balanced budgets.

The shortfall is attributed to the loss in parking, food and retail revenues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in the last few weeks of the fiscal year, the WRHA said.

Prior to its last two surpluses, the health authority had recorded deficits each year since 2012.

The controversial transformation of Winnipeg’s health-care system, which began under the Progressive Conservative government in 2017, was concluded in the last fiscal year, with the conversion of the Seven Oaks emergency room into an urgent care centre.

The emergency rooms at Concordia and Victoria hospitals had previously been turned into urgent care centres, bringing the city’s total of ERs from six to three.

‘A sense of the possibility’

Vickie Kaminski, the health authority’s president and CEO, said the benefits of the overhaul became apparent when the pandemic arrived in March.

“As the co-ordinated response to the pandemic came together, we began to get a sense of the possibility a redesigned Manitoba health-care system can offer,” Kaminski wrote in the report.

“The co-ordination of not only WRHA sites and service providers but other regional health authorities, Shared Health and Manitoba Health all came together and began to solidify our newly defined roles.”

She reported good progress from a task force addressing congestion within health-care facilities and a group focused on improving nursing recruitment. The length of time between when a nurse is hired and when they begin working has been cut in half to roughly 20 days.

The WRHA’s operating budget in the last fiscal year was slashed to $1.9 billion, down from $2.7 billion the year before, as nearly a third of the health authority’s staff and positions were transferred to Shared Health, a provincial health organization.

The annual report says the health authority had 27 fewer hospital beds overall than the year before (2,265 beds compared to 2,292). The Health Sciences Centre was not included in these totals.

There were also more people staying at personal care homes (5,774 residents compared to 5,678) than the previous year.

More visits to emergency departments and urgent care centres (199,066 visits, up from 195,148 visits in the prior year) were recorded. The average occupancy rate at the health authority’s hospitals increased by 0.8 percentage points, to 92.3 per cent.

The emergency room at Seven Oaks Hospital was the last of three slated to close as part of an overhaul of Winnipeg’s health-care system. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The Opposition New Democrats have continually blasted the health-care overhaul, describing the changes as deep cuts. Health critic Uzoma Asagwara says the report shows the sector entered the pandemic in a weak position. 

“Not only have they cut 150 hospital beds in Winnipeg over the past four years, closed vital ERs and cut the number of surgeries performed, they created a situation of understaffing that is not sustainable and is leading to nurse and health-care worker burnout,” they said.

The report noted a rise in the number of critical incidents to 67 — 15 more than the previous year. A critical incident in one in which a patient sustains “a serious and undesired consequence,” such as disability or injury, from medical treatment.

Meanwhile, the health authority received fewer complaints from patients (2,378 versus 2,508 in 2018-19) and more compliments.

Notably, the WRHA received half as many complaints regarding “organizational change,” which includes those speaking out on the health-care overhaul.

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