‘Cautious optimism’: Long-term care for northern seniors included in budget

Mayor says La Ronge lacks infrastructure for a new long-term care facility that will bring 80 beds to the community

The La Ronge Health Centre serves the town, surrounding communities and the larger northern region with only 14 beds dedicated for long-term care. Photo by Michael Bramadat-Willcock

Saskatchewan’s budget released on Tuesday promises more benefits for seniors in the north, with $7.6M in funding for new long-term care facilities in La Ronge. More support for low income seniors will be rolled out across the province through higher maximum payments.

Slated to open by the end of 2023, the new facility’s 80 permanent resident beds will mean a significant expansion in capacity and service from the 14-bed facility that now exists at the La Ronge Health Centre. 

“I understood that there was going to be a commitment for the long term care facility. We obviously want to see as much coming to the north as possible to support the economic development and the health of our area but I think that there is also the realization that we’re in a pandemic,”  La Ronge Mayor Colin Ratushniak said.  

“I’m happy to see that there’s been some significant investment in health infrastructure because there have been some holes in there for a long time. At the same time… I think the province is very stretched when it comes to the budget ”

The Ministry of Health’s overall budget increased 4.5 per cent from last year or 78 per cent since 2007, in what the province billed as the “largest health investment in Saskatchewan history.” 

Minister of Health Paul Merriman said this year’s record investment will mean “improvements on critical and acute care needs, and building and upgrading our infrastructure system.”

Minister of Finance Donna Harpauer stressed that an increase in the social services and assistance budget will improve quality of life for seniors around the province.  

“This budget meets our election commitment to increase benefits to seniors with $3.5 million in additional funding for the Seniors Income Plan,” Harpauer said.  

“The investment will help low-income seniors enjoy a better quality of life with maximum payments increasing by $30 a month effective July 1.

“This is the sixth increase our government has made to the Seniors Income Plan since 2008, after it had been frozen for 16 years by the previous government.”

Harpauer also announced the start of a three-year, $18.4 million project to hire 300 continuing care aides to work in long-term care and home-care in rural and remote areas.

The Saskatchewan government had announced an investment of more than $80 million in funding for long-term care facilities across the province last June as part of a $7.5-billion, two-year capital plan, with $200 million designated for health infrastructure.

Cumberland’s NDP MLA Doyle Vermette said La Ronge is in the highest category of need for long-term care homes and that wait times for elders in the community can be almost a year to get into the current facilities.

“I believe there are 14 beds here… We’re critical here, code red, and there’s a real shortage of beds for seniors,” Vermette said.

“When we can physically see the actual building completed, hopefully we can all share that excitement when … we have our loved ones moving into it,” he said.

Ratushniak said more accessible long-term care will raise the quality of life for seniors in the community and build La Ronge’s capacity as a hub for those services in the north. But he also cautioned that the infrastructure and workforce needed to support a facility of that size doesn’t exist yet in La Ronge. He said housing for new employees also needs to be addressed before the facility will be able to staff itself and open properly.

“It’s cautious optimism when it comes to things like this because we just want to make sure we’re ready as well. I think La Ronge is also in a place where we don’t have sufficient housing, we don’t have a specific infrastructure in place to start bringing in that number of people,” Ratushniak said. 

“I did read that there is some investment going into care aids but you can’t just create nurses in a year or two. They’re looking at making this operational by 2022-2023. It takes time to educate and to train nursing staffing for a facility of that size.

“There are a lot of moving parts, but it does give us at least a commitment where we can now start putting our strategic plan into place, so that we are ready in two, three or four years time.”

Ratushniak said the new facility will boost the economy in a big way but he has some concerns about what the full cost is going to be and whether it will be fully funded by the province. 

“As grateful as I am for that commitment, I want to get a full spectrum of what that means for us long-term, not only for the building itself, but also for the number of jobs that it’s going to create. Because from what I know we have a shortage of staffing as it is.”