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Four of 13 nurses working on a casual basis to help examine victims of sexual assault in Manitoba resigned Tuesday, and their union blamed a lack of staffing and support.

“It is very unfortunate that these nurses advocated as fiercely as they did for a program that they clearly are invested in to have seen no meaningful changes from their advocacy,” Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union, said in a written statement.

“As a result, we are seeing experienced, skilled nurses leave a program that desperately needs them.”

It is the latest blow to the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, or SANE, program at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, which has failed at times to live up to its plan to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Casual nurses in the program work full-time in other areas and pick up shifts with SANE in their spare time. They collect evidence of assault and support victims.

The union said earlier this year that some victims were being told to come back later – and not shower in the interim – because no one was available. Nurses have been overwhelmed and stretched thin, the union added.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon said she holds health leaders accountable for the trouble.

“What is unacceptable is that our government a year ago ... committed to staffing this program 24-7 and it hasn’t happened,” Gordon said.

“We have established the funding for the program, the space has been made available at Health Sciences Centre, and the health system leaders need to do more to ensure that those positions are filled.”

The government has also provided funding to convert casual positions to permanent, full-time ones, Gordon added.

Officials at the Health Sciences Centre said they are looking to fill work schedules soon, partly by having physicians pitch in. They are also training new workers to fill the permanent positions.

“Education takes a while, in order for these nurses to be competent and able to do the exams,” said Jennifer Cumpsty, the hospital’s executive director of acute health services.

Six nurses have been hired so far for the seven permanent positions, a provincial health official later said.

The Opposition New Democrats accused the government of ignoring pleas from nurses to fully support the program.

“This news is a direct result of this premier and this minister of health’s refusal to respect the expertise of these nurse-examiners and nurses across our health-care system,” NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said.