Despite only serving as acting Haliburton Highlands Health Services president and CEO for a matter of months, Veronica Nelson’s fingerprints can be found throughout the County hospital.

Nelson’s interim title was made permanent Dec. 4. It’s something of a homecoming for the administrator, who, in the early stages of her career, spent time working in imaging and diagnostics at the old Minden site.

After transitioning to a director role at Lindsay’s Ross Memorial Hospital, Nelson stayed true to her Highlands’ roots. She worked with former administrator, Varouj Eskedjian, to bring ultrasound and echo services to the County, and later assisted his successor, Carolyn Plummer, on the proposal to bring a CT scanner and mammography unit to the area.

Nelson noted plans are moving ahead for that enhancement, with the organization putting out a tender for construction for the $4.3 million project on Dec. 4. She said the goal is to have everything in place for a summer 2024 launch.

In an interview with The Highlander, she said her main priority moving forward was to rebuild the community’s trust in HHHS. Discussing the closure of the Minden ER site, the new president and CEO admitted the organization had faltered by not engaging with the public.

“We do have to acknowledge that [the closure] wasn’t handled the best way. To me, we did go wrong by not communicating with the community before making the announcement, 100 per cent,” Nelson said.

She stood behind the “difficult decision” the board made to close the site, noting it was necessary to ensure the County had one solid, operational emergency department.

Since June 1, HHHS has drastically scaled back its spend on agency nurses. While she couldn’t provide specific numbers, Nelson said the organizational deficit, pegged at around $4.2 million at the end of the 2022/23 fiscal year in April, had shrunk to around $1.7 million as of Sept. 30. She attributed much of that to a decreased reliance on agency staff.

Financial pressures do remain – Nelson noted the repealing of Bill 124 and subsequent renegotiation of nurse contracts was expected to cost HHHS an additional $3.5 million this fiscal year, while inflation and increases to other costs is set to add another $1.5 million to $2 million.

“We still have an underlying structural base funding problem. The board and I have been doing significant advocacy work to try and address that,” she noted.

After taking comments from the public “very seriously” regarding rumours of people applying for jobs at HHHS and not hearing back, Nelson said she oversaw “drastic changes” to the hospital’s HR department through the summer. Since then, around 30 new staff members have been brought on board.

That hiring push will continue, with Nelson working closely with County physician recruitment coordinator, Wendy Welch, to attract new doctors to the Highlands. She said the organization has some leads on overseas-trained doctors currently living and working in the UK.

She believes HHHS will be a much more attractive proposition once the CT scanner and mammography unit is online.

County council recently donated $1 million to that project on the premise they’re granted a seat on the HHHS board. Nelson said it’s her understanding the board is open to that.

She said she has big plans for HHHS.

“I have a dream. We’re working on our master program master plan right now… we’re getting our stage 1 pre-capital submissions into the ministry. What that does is it puts us on the list to say ‘hey, we have our hand up, we want to start doing something’,” Nelson said. “So, services like CT, mammography, endoscopy, MRI. We’re never going to be able to do neurology here, we don’t have the capacity, but we can look at things that make sense for our rural hospital.

“I never want to stand still. I want to see this place grow and thrive,” she added.