For the first time in nearly a year, the former chair of Health P.E.I.'s board has criticized the state of the province's health-care system and challenged the current health minister on recruitment efforts.
Derek Key stepped down from the health agency's board in December 2022, citing multiple failures in the government's efforts to foster quality health care on the Island.
On Thursday night, the Summerside lawyer stood to speak at a packed town hall meeting held to let residents and health-care workers express concerns about recent cuts to services at Prince County Hospital.
"I've done my absolute best since the day that I sent my letter of resignation to the premier to make no comment on any of this," Key told the panel at the event's head table, which included P.E.I. Health Minister Mark McLane, interim Health P.E.I. CEO Corinne Rowswell, and the agency's chief medical officer, Dr. Katherine McNally.
McLane had just finished replying to an assertion from the town hall's moderator, Prince County Hospital Foundation vice-president Derek Bondt, that physicians and medical school students aren't receiving a response when they contact Health P.E.I. recruiters about their desire to work on the Island.
Health Minister Mark McLane speaks to a packed town hall meeting in Summerside as acting Health P.E.I. CEO Corinne Rowswell looks on. (Aaron Adetuyi/CBC)
The health minister said he had been told of 16 instances like that during his eight months in the job of not hearing back from a recruiter.
He said he personally followed up on 15 of those cases, and asked anyone in the crowd who knew of a similar issue to contact him directly.
This is the most competitive workforce in the world and it simply would not make sense for us to not call anybody back. — Mark McLane
"This is the most competitive workforce in the world and it simply would not make sense for us to not call anybody back," McLane said.
"That story about us not getting back to people, in my experience in eight months, has been proven false."
'Long story short, nope'
But Key begged to differ. He took the microphone to a big round of applause from the hundreds of people gathered in Credit Union Place for the town hall.
He said he had received an email just three days earlier from a third-year medical school student from the Island. Key said he asked the student if he'd been contacted by a recruiter about working in his home province.
With Summerside Mayor Dan Kutcher looking on from the podium at the far left of the photo, the health minister, Health P.E.I. officials and members of the audience listen to a question being asked from the back of the room Thursday night. (Aaron Adetuyi/CBC)
"I'm going to quote [the email]: 'Long story short, nope,'" he said the student replied.
CBC News has not seen the email Key was quoting. He declined a request for an interview following the meeting.
Key told the crowd that the student went on to write that it's been frustrating as well for three other classmates, also from the Island, when it came to dealing with Health P.E.I. recruiters.
"'It's definitely been a bit disheartening but not surprising,'" Key said the student wrote.
He said the student also wrote of not getting a reply to a question about a housing subsidy during a required training rotation on P.E.I., although other Atlantic provinces do provide such help to medical students whose seats they have sponsored.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Minister, while I expect what you just said is what you've been told, it's not true," Key told McLane, to a standing ovation from the Summerside audience.
'I will look into it for sure'
McLane said he would look into the issue and try to figure out where people are falling through the cracks in the recruitment process.
"If you would like, I will look into it for sure," he told Key. "Again, I don't know why something like that would happen. I've committed to chasing them down, so I would like to know where that break is in the system in the communications side."
Back in February 2023, Key told a legislative committee that he thought too much of the planning and decision-making around health care on the Island was being done by the government — out of the hands of Health P.E.I.
He also said there were too many hurdles when it came to hiring staff and making necessary changes.