Prince Albert youth psychiatric unit closed again, according to leaked health authority memo

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Carla Beck responds to an SHA memo about the Victoria Hospital’s inpatient youth psychiatric unit closing on Aug. 29, 2023. – Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald

UPDATED: This story was updated on Wednesday, Aug. 30 to include a statement from the Ministry of Health.

For the third time in three years, families cannot access inpatient psychiatric care for youth in Prince Albert.

The Opposition NDP is responding to a leaked Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) memo, informing staff that the unit will not be able to admit patients effective August 18.

“The proof is in the closed beds that we see behind us – this is not an effective plan,” said NDP leader Carla Beck.

“They keep saying they’re working on it, that things will get better, but that’s not what we see.”

The SHA recruited a part-time youth psychiatrist in March, allowing the inpatient unit to operate with two short-term beds. It has a 10-bed capacity.

Nicole Rancourt, the NDP candidate for Prince Albert Northcote, said she received information that the part-time psychiatrist was moving to Saskatoon. This information has not been confirmed from the SHA.

The SHA is working on recruiting for two vacant full-time positions. According to a statement from the Ministry of Health, this is a “top priority” for the provincial government.

“The SHA and the new Saskatchewan Healthcare Recruitment Agency are actively recruiting for these positions across Saskatchewan, Canada, and internationally,” it reads.

The ministry said it has put in place a $200,000 recruitment incentive in order to make Prince Albert more competitive in recruiting child psychiatrists. Additionally, according to the statement, the ministry has provided funding to the SHA to implement a team-based care model for patients.

Rancourt said when she left her position as a social worker for outpatient services in 2016, her department had six adult psychiatrists and two youth psychiatrists.

“We still felt that that didn’t meet the needs,” she said. “Things are getting worse.”

Both Rancourt and Beck said the provincial government is not focusing on retention of health care workers.

They referenced Dr. Randy Zbuk, who left his full-time youth psychiatrist position at the Victoria Hospital a year ago. He told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix that he was “grossly under-resourced” with no coverage to take time off and a lack of full-time nurses to assist him.

“It’s actually expressing anxiety about hearing the phone ringing when someone finally has a day off and they’re worried about being called in again,” said Beck.

“Some of the things that we have proposed: Grow your own health care education in the province, looking for people specifically who want to live in a smaller urban centre.”

She said the SHA should be recruiting more than one psychiatrist at a time so that they’re able to take time off of work.

Premier Scott Moe’s cabinet shuffle on Tuesday included Everett Hindley as the new minister of health, replacing Paul Merriman. In the past, Hindley has been the minister of mental health and addictions, seniors, and rural and remote health.

“We’ve seen cabinet shuffles several times on that side, I have not seen anything change,” said Beck.

The leaked memo, dated August 16, said “the decision has been made due to significant shortages within the psychiatry team.”

“Ongoing efforts to recruit continue and we will be sure to inform everyone once we are able to re-open our beds in Prince Albert and establish child and youth inpatient services.”

Beck said the government must listen to health care workers and patients because they know the system best and can identify gaps.

“This is something that we see time and time again from this government – overpromising and underdelivering,” she said.

“If you can’t get the job done, I will.”