June 13, 2024

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New Brunswick Health Minister says he will find the truth about expensive, temporary nursing contracts

3 min read
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The emergency department at Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton.Daniel St Louis/Handout

New Brunswick Health Minister Bruce Fitch told lawmakers on Wednesday that his government would “get to the bottom of it” as opposition politicians raised concerns about expensive contracts for temporary health care staff that the province has come to rely on to keep its hospitals and nursing homes in operation.

Mr. Fitch’s comments are the first time he has spoken in the legislature about the findings of a Globe and Mail investigation published in February – which found that New Brunswick’s Vitalité Health Network had contracts with a private health care staffing agency to supply personnel at six times the rates paid to local public system nurses. The Globe has also since found that Vitalité paid for meal allowances but that money appears not to have been distributed to the agency’s workers.

The agency, Toronto-based Canadian Health Labs, also signed contracts with Newfoundland, charging twice the rates of other companies. Both provinces turned to CHL in 2022 because of severe staff shortage caused by the pandemic.

“Health care dollars need to be allocated with care. That’s why the travel nurse contract with CHL has New Brunswickers so upset. How did we get gouged like this?” Susan Holt, Leader of New Brunswick’s Official Opposition Liberals, said in the legislature.

She also asked how Premier Blaine Higgs and his government were going to “prevent a predatory contract like this from being signed again?”

Mr. Fitch noted that the province’s Auditor-General has announced a review of travel nursing contracts. “I was the one that wrote the letter to the Auditor-General to ask them to look into this contract,” the minister said.

He added that travel nursing is “not a forever solution” – although one of the contracts between Vitalité and CHL extends until 2026.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of this and understand fully what was in the contract,” Mr. Fitch said.

Vitalité, the province’s francophone health authority, has declined to release its contracts with CHL but The Globe obtained them through other sources. The documents show that Vitalité currently has a nursing deal with CHL worth a maximum of $93-million. It went into effect on Dec. 2, 2022, and runs until February, 2026, and in the first year, it charges Vitalité $306.70 an hour for a nurse. That rate is indexed annually for inflation. It is twice the rates other agencies charge.

Another contract with CHL for nurses expired last fall. It was capped at $20-million.

Vitalité also signed a contract, with a maximum of $45-million, to get personal support workers from CHL, at a rate of $162.29 an hour in the first year of the deal. That rate is also indexed to inflation. PSWs typically earn $20 to $25 an hour.

The contracts also require that Vitalité pay $46 a day in meal allowances for each worker supplied by CHL. However, nine nurses who worked for the agency in New Brunswick have told The Globe that they never received those meal allowances.

CHL has not explained that discrepancy despite several requests for comments. The agency has also not addressed The Globe’s finding that it collected $1.6-million in meal allowances for the personnel it sent to Newfoundland, though it told the nurses in writing that they had to pay for their food.

CHL did not respond to a request for comment sent Wednesday. In an unsigned four-paragraph statement last month, CHL said its contracts are fair, transparent and “tailored to meet each jurisdiction’s significant local needs, and reflect the extraordinary logistical challenges of getting and keeping health care professionals in rural, remote and underserved communities.”

The Globe investigation also found that Vitalité was paying CHL for the accommodation of its travelling personnel at hotel-like rates. However, the company billeted some of its workers in regular apartments, after purchasing rental properties via corporations set up by CHL chief executive Bill Hennessey, and terminating the leases of local tenants, several of them retirees.

The government of Mr. Higgs is not taking seriously what amounts to “nothing short of a scandal,” Liberal health critic Rob McKee said during Question Period.

“They’re paying the CEO of CHL for hotel accommodations for the nurses while he’s pocketing the money because he’s evicting seniors from their homes in Campbellton and owning those homes. Mr. Speaker, it is scandalous.”

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