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Health Minister Deb Matthews says a good question to ask is whether the privatization of the preparation of the chemo drugs was a contributing factor to the problemKevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Ontario is broadening a program aimed at attracting new nurses to the province, days after a budget that drew the ire of members of the profession.

Health Minister Deb Matthews on Monday announced the expansion of the Nursing Graduate Guarantee program, which links recent nursing graduates from Ontario to employers, to accept graduates from other provinces and territories. Also being created under the program's umbrella is an initiative to help internationally trained nurses practise in Ontario.

The province estimates that an average of 2,200 nurses are hired through the $100-million program each year, with the aim to expand that to 2,600 nurses a year.

"We are now providing the same opportunity to new nurses who were educated in other provinces and internationally to ensure Ontario has the best nursing workforce providing care to patients," Ms. Matthews said during a news conference at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

News of the expansion was welcomed by the nurses' groups, but they said the program does not address a provincial trend of nurses transitioning out of hospitals and into community care, and job reductions over the last two years. The provincial budget calls for freezing hospitals' base operating funding next year, which nurses' groups say will result in fewer registered nurses offering acute care in hospitals.

The province counts 16,400 more nurses working in Ontario than a decade ago, but nurses' groups point to College of Nurses of Ontario statistics that show the number of registered nurses falling by about 1,000 between 2010 and 2012. There are about 94,000 registered nurses working in the province, according to the college.

"The announcement is a very small positive piece to supporting the nursing workforce," said Linda Haslam-Stroud, president of the Ontario Nurses' Association, which represents about 60,000 nurses at the bargaining table. "But that is not going to address the fundamental issue that's happening in hospitals. In the hospitals, they're actually cutting nursing positions."

Doris Grinspun, the chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, said she was "delighted" by the announcement, but said it does not change the fact that, according to nurses' groups, Ontario has nearly the lowest number of working registered nurses per capita of any province or territory in the country.

"The research show that, in a very conclusive way, you need an adequate supply of registered nurses," Ms. Grinspun said.