Plan to merge NWT health authorities faces legal threat

Glen Abernethy at public hearing
Health minister Glen Abernethy, front, listens to union representatives threaten legal action at a public hearing.
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The territorial government’s plan to merge eight regional health authorities could face a legal challenge.

Health minister Glen Abernethy believes the creation of a single, all-encompassing health authority will offer residents across the Northwest Territories access to better healthcare, while delivering modest financial savings.

However, at a public hearing to examine his proposed legislation on Monday, the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) threatened legal action over the plans.

The union’s concern lies primarily with staff in Hay River, who – under Abernethy’s proposals – would switch employer from the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority to the GNWT.

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According to the union, the territorial government’s proposed bill does not adequately protect the benefits of those Hay River employees who transfer in to the GNWT.

“The way this is being implemented endangers union members’ entitlements, be they pension or seniority related. It would also halt any grievances prior to the proposed transfer. These issues must be corrected,” said UNW representative Patty Ducharme.

“It is our view that in its current form, this bill is unconstitutional [and] the UNW will challenge any resulting law before the courts if flawed sections are not removed.”

Read: NWT health is broken – minister pushes plan to fix it by 2016

Fellow union representative Marie Buchanan recalled a similar, earlier situation involving nurses in Yellowknife.

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“Those nurses were working for 15, 20, 25 years in our community, [then] they got hired at the GNWT and started from the very beginning,” Buchanan told the hearing at Yellowknife’s legislative assembly.

“They lost all their vacation, their benefits, their seniority.

“We have to remember that these people are in our communities and have put a lot of work into the community.”

The union additionally believes the proposals have been developed “without meaningful consultation”.

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Minister Abernethy, speaking earlier in the same hearing, acknowledged time would be needed to conduct negotiations with staff in Hay River.

“We know that Hay River is going to take a bit of time,” he said.

“Their leadership has indicated a desire and I’ve talked to many of the staff, who have indicated a desire. We believe we can get this done [and] bring them into the public service.”

In full: Union of Northern Workers’ submission to Monday’s hearing (.doc)

Abernethy said the proposed legislation had been constructed to allow Hay River to miss his intended deadline of April next year.

“We would, obviously, love to have this done by April 1, 2016, but the reality is the negotiations could take us past that. So we wanted to make sure the legislation gives us the ability to bring Hay River in at a later date,” he said.

MLAs Daryl Dolynny and Wendy Bisaro separately expressed concern that the bill currently offers any future minister powers that are too wide-ranging.

They want to see amendments to a section in which the minister appears capable of exempting authorities, facilities or services from “any provision” of the legislation.

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