Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS) is anticipating a $3 million deficit by year end, with CEO Carolyn Plummer saying the organization’s stretched resources were having a “significant impact” on operations and morale at the County’s two hospital sites.

Answering questions from The Highlander at a March 23 board meeting, Plummer said the status of HHHS’ finances was concerning, with the organization still relying on its line of credit to cover thousands of dollars in basic, day-to-day operational costs.

“We have a number of priorities we have to move forward with as an organization to make sure we can keep going and support the changing needs of the community… but with the financial and staffing pressures we’re facing, it does place a tremendous burden on the team to try and find ways to mitigate those challenges,” Plummer said.

“We can’t just pause and stall, we have to continue to move forward… to the best of our ability with the resources we do have,” she added.

Backing up the CEO, finance committee chair Irene Odell noted the organization’s financials are “in bad shape.” It was noted HHHS had incurred $17,000 in interes-trelated costs over the past six months.

HHHS is spending approximately $330,000 per month on agency nurses, including at its long-term care facilities, to keep its services operational. Plummer said between 40 and 50 per cent of the total nursing hours in Haliburton and Minden are being covered by agency staff.

Recruitment remains a challenge, Plummer noted. While she said there had been an uptick in the number of resumes received for open RN postings since the new year, retention of existing staff has proven problematic.

“It seems every time we take a step forward, we immediately take two steps back,” the CEO said. “We’re still running into issues with staff choosing to leave and go elsewhere where a higher compensation is offered, and we’re [not able to match that] with the constraints of our collective agreements. There’s certainly a lot of things that need to change, as many of the issues we’re facing are outside of our control.”

Plummer previously told The Highlander the organization could use an additional 12 full-time RNs.

Salaries for registered nurses in Ontario hospitals are set by the provincial government through the Ontario Hospital Association, with first year professionals starting at $34.24 an hour and the most experienced RNs earning a maximum of $49.02 an hour.

Nurses and other public sector workers have seen pay increases capped at one per cent a year since 2020, under Bill 124 – the province introduced as the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act. An Ontario court found Bill 124 unconstitutional in December 2022, with Justice Markus Koehnen ruling it infringes on workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The government has since appealed the decision.

The government’s contract with the Ontario Nurses’ Association, the union that represents 68,000 RNs and other healthcare professionals, expires March 31. President, Bernie Robinson, told media March 3 that initial negotiations with the province had broken down, with arbitration looming in May.

While MPP Laurie Scott did not answer questions posed to her, Hannah Jensen, press secretary for health minister Sylvia Jones, told The Highlander, “hospitals experiencing urgent operating and financial pressures are encouraged to work with their Ontario Health Regions to identify opportunities for improvement and cost savings.” Jensen did not respond to a question about the long-term feasibility of hospitals relying on agency nurses to fill shifts.

Plummer said the potential for temporary emergency department shutdowns in Haliburton and Minden still loomed large.

“We remain in a precarious position. Potential closures are something we continue to grapple with on a regular basis,” she said. “We’ve had many close calls (more than 20 in 2022), and we continue to have close calls on a monthly basis.”