Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS) interim CEO and president Veronica Nelson said the organization has recently hired five new nurses and 11 PSWs and HSWs as it seeks to reduce its reliance on agency staff.

At a town hall meeting held at the Haliburton Legion July 27, Nelson said HHHS spent over $4 million on agency nurses in its 2022/23 fiscal year. That was a drastic increase from the previous year, where the organization spent approximately $1 million on temporary staff.

Nelson said reducing that number was one of her first priorities after assuming her position in June.

“That drastic of an increase is not sustainable… our goal this year is to reduce agency staffing to 10 per cent [of that total]. That’s a hefty goal, but we hope to [achieve it] by engaging and hiring more staff,” Nelson said.

She reiterated the decision to close the Minden emergency department was due to staff and physician shortages. When questioned later in the meeting about why Minden, which had a full rotation of physicians through September, was closed ahead of Haliburton, Nelson said the determining factor was the 15 inpatient beds available at the Haliburton site.

If we had kept Minden emerg open, we couldn’t have kept Haliburton inpatient open. The reason the Haliburton site was chosen was to make sure the emergency department was beside the inpatient unit so that any patient that needed to be admitted could be admitted to an inpatient bed,” she said. “It works as a system, they can’t work separately.”

HHHS is working on a new partnership with SE Health and Paramed through the Home and Community Care Support Services to open a new community nursing clinic in Minden. This is slated to open at the old Minden emergency department site and will run in tandem with the urgent care clinic service provided by the Kawartha North Family Health Team.

Nelson said this will provide additional “high quality” nursing care to residents for issues such as wound care, IV therapy and catheter care, helping to avoid unnecessary ER visits or hospital admissions. Providing patients grant consent, she said nurses will be able to share information with primary care physicians. While she didn’t provide an opening date, it’s proposed to be open seven days a week, 11 hours per day.

At the previous town hall, held in Minden last month, Nelson said she was quizzed about “ballooning” ER wait times in Haliburton since services were consolidated June 1. She noted that, in June, the ER saw 1,495 patients, who were seen, on average, within 48 minutes of their arrival. Class one, two and three patients, deemed emergency or high urgency, were treated and released within 3.4 hours, while less urgent patients were in and out within 1.6 hours.

Nelson said across the whole month 87 per cent of patients from levels one to three finished their emergency visit within the hospital’s target time of eight hours, while 91 per cent of level four and five patients were finished within four hours.

“So far, we’re handling the numbers we’re seeing,” Nelson said.

HHHS will host a third town hall at the Stanhope Firefighters’ Community Hall in Algonquin Highlands Aug. 22 from noon to 1 p.m., with a fourth scheduled Aug. 26 from 10 to 11 a.m. at the Lloyd Watson Memorial Centre in Highlands East.