STATE OF EMERGENCY: Fraser Health paying four times normal rate to fill ARH ER nursing positions

'Given that number, obviously it's not our first choice,' Fraser Health CEO Michael Marchbank says

The Abbotsford Regional Hospital emergency room has come under scrutiny after the recent deaths of two patients.

The Abbotsford Regional Hospital emergency room has come under scrutiny after the recent deaths of two patients.

This is part of a multi-story Special Report on Abbotsford Regional Hospital and its emergency department. For more stories, scroll to the bottom of the story or click here.

Faced with a persistent shortage of emergency room nurses at Abbotsford Regional Hospital, Fraser Health is paying four times the normal rate for temporary help while it tries to fill the positions.

The ARH emergency department has been understaffed for more than a year, with Fraser Health resorting to flying in expensive out-of-province nurses from Alberta and Ontario, the BC Nurses’ Union (BCNU) says.

BCNU president Gayle Duteil, who toured ARH last weekend, compared conditions for nurses in the ER to that of a MASH unit in a war zone.

She said the health authority has been unable to fill dozens of vacancies and the lack of resources is nothing new.

“It’s astounding that the chair of Fraser Health has allowed it to get to this point,” she said. “This has been a long-standing deplorable problem.”

The nurses’ union says that as of Wednesday, the hospital had 41 extra patients in the emergency department.

The conditions, Duteil said Wednesday, have been making it difficult for Fraser Health to hire and retain a full complement of workers.

Fraser Health CEO Michael Marchbank confirmed Thursday that ARH had a shortfall of 30 employed nurses.

He said the health authority uses an agency to fill shortfalls.

Marchbank said the source of the licensed fill-in nurses isn’t known, but confirmed that each agency nurse costs the health authority four times as much as a nurse paid by Fraser Health.

“Given that number, obviously it’s not our first choice,” he told The News Thursday.

Marchbank said nine nurses will return to work soon, another nine are being trained and seven will be available to work by December.

He said Fraser Health will continue working to improve work conditions in order to better retain staff.

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The state of Abbotsford’s ER was raised in the B.C. legislature on Tuesday, with the NDP blasting the governing BC Liberals for their management of the health-care file.

“How has this health minister let this situation in Abbotsford deteriorate so badly that patients with life-threatening problems now have to compete for their treatment?” NDP MLA Jodie Wickens asked.

Health Minister Terry Lake defended his government, and pointed to below-average wait times at ARH. He said “winter is a busy season” and called the current issues a “seasonal fluctuation.” Lake also said “Fraser Health and all of our health authorities are very focused on strategies to decongest emergency departments at a very busy time of the year.”