Premier Higgs backs calls for auditor general investigation of travel nurse contract

Click to play video: 'Premier Higgs backs calls for AG investigation of travel nurse contract'
Premier Higgs backs calls for AG investigation of travel nurse contract
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says he’d like to see the auditor general investigate a contract signed by one of the province’s health authorities with a travel nurse agency. Silas Brown explains. – Feb 27, 2024

Premier Blaine Higgs says that he and other government officials were not aware of a three-year, $93-million contract with Canada Health Labs to provide travel nurses in Vitalite hospitals and that the auditor general should consider an investigation.

“I think this contract, it should be understood how it got signed, how it was approved and why we would sign such a contract for three years,” he told reporters Tuesday.

The government is facing criticism over the contract since it was revealed in a recent Globe and Mail investigation. Vitalite signed three different agreements with the company during the 2022-2023 fiscal year, but department of health officials say they were only aware of the first one.

Nurses provided through the final, $93 million contract cost over $300 an hour, about six times the hourly rate for registered nurses in the province.

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A spokesperson for the auditor general, Paul Martin, confirmed that it is considering an audit on the use of travel nurses in the province.

The New Brunswick Nurses Union has also been calling for an investigation, and vice-president Maria Richard is pleased to see the premier add his voice to the calls. Figures obtained by the union reveal that the province has spent at least $70 million on travel nurses since 2022.

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“We really have concerns that we are spending tax payers money for private for profit agency,” she said.

“Public money should not be spent on a private agency.”

Both health authorities and deputy minister of health Eric Beaulieu have said that the use of the agencies were necessary to keep the health system functioning as the province grappled with staffing shortages coming out of the most restrictive part of the pandemic in 2022.

Horizon has plans to phase out the use of travel nurses by this spring, but Vitalite says it will take them until 2026, the year the Canada Health Labs contract is set to expire.

Click to play video: 'New Brunswick officials under fire for money spent on travel nurses'
New Brunswick officials under fire for money spent on travel nurses

While Beaulieu defended the use of the agencies as necessary, helping to avoid the closure of medical facilities, he did admit that there would normally be greater department oversight on that type of spending.

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“In these types of contracts given the magnitude of them, the duration and the dollar figure, they would normally be things that would involve the department,” Beaulieu told a legislative committee last week.

Richard says that the need for the agencies was self-inflicted, as the province failed to address its workforce needs over the last decade.

“We’ve been telling the government that this shortage was coming. We knew the age of our nurses, the age of the population and then COVID came and created the perfect storm,” she said. “This has been created because governments, not only this government but the government before them, did not listen.

“We created a situation where there’s hospitals in the province where units would have been closed if we did not have agency nurses.”

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