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Ambulances are parked at a hospital in Toronto on April 6, 2021.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario is extending funding that helps rural and northern hospitals avoid temporary ER closures, after previously saying it would end after the summer.

A memo this week from the deputy minister of health to affected hospitals said that the Temporary Locum Program, which had been set to expire Sept. 30, will now continue until March 31.

The ministry “recognizes that Emergency Departments (EDs) in Northern and Rural areas continue to face significant health human resources (HHR) pressures,” deputy minister Catherine Zahn wrote.

“(This) was created as a short-term program to support hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic and with the understanding that more sustainable solutions are required to support rural and northern hospitals.”

Many northern and rural hospitals rely on doctors from urban areas filling shifts on what is known as a locum basis, and this program was created to pay those doctors a premium for that work. Officials at several hospitals have said they struggle to fill shifts without being able to offer that premium.

In the spring, the ministry had told hospitals that after Sept. 30 the program would be wound down, but a spokesperson for Health Minister Sylvia Jones said the ministry had been monitoring the program over the summer.

“This summer, we saw the (program) ensure all hospitals eligible for the program remained open – not one went without physician coverage this summer,” Hannah Jensen wrote in a statement.

“We are continuing to work with our partners, including the (Ontario Medical Association), on a permanent solution to best support the sector beyond March 2024.”

There have still been numerous temporary ER closures across the province this year due to staffing shortages, such as a lack of nurses.

The ERs at hospitals in the South Bruce Grey Health Centre network have faced repeated and lengthy closures, in particular the hospital in Chesley, Ont.

Huron Perth Health Alliance hospitals have faced several ER closures, as have the hospitals in the Listowel Wingham Hospital Alliance, which directed patients to the closest nearby hospitals in an Aug. 28 announcement about upcoming closures in September, while warning that those hospitals “may also be experiencing temporary closures due to staffing shortages.”

The Mississippi River Health Alliance announced temporary closures for the ERs at its Almonte and Carleton Place hospitals in July, saying they were due to nursing shortages “like many rural hospitals in Ontario and across the country.”

“These decisions are not made lightly and not without every alternative being exhausted,” the hospital wrote.

“Each emergency department has a very small staff with one physician and two nurses working on each shift. If one of them is sick, there is a big impact as there is not a large pool of people with emergency department training to draw from.”

The emergency department in Minden, Ont., permanently closed earlier this year due to staff shortages.

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