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Spending almost $36M on travel nurses is ‘obviously concerning,’ health minister says | CBC News

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Health Minister Tom Osborne says travel nurses are a ‘necessary evil,’ and that he would like to see the end of heavy use of private agencies. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador’s Health Minister Tom Osborne said Tuesday travel nurses are a “necessary evil,” one that was especially necessary to keep emergency departments and other services open during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, as revealed in a recent Globe and Mail report, spending $35.6 million on nurses from private agencies within months, as well as shelling out cash for travel nurses’ training, cable bills, and a variety of other expenses, is “obviously concerning,” he said.

The contracts with private nursing agencies such as Canadian Health Labs — a private, Toronto-based company — were entered into by the four regional health authorities, said Osborne, which are now amalgamated into N.L. Health Services.

He said he can’t fault the health authority for contracting agency nurses to fill gaps needed to keep hospitals running, but he said the government is asking the health authority to provide clarification regarding some of the concerns outlined in the Globe and Mail report.

“While I will be the first person in Canada to celebrate openly and loudly when we get back to pre-pandemic levels of agency nursing, right now, it is a necessary evil,” he said.

Calls for auditor general’s investigation

The province’s NDP, Progressive Conservatives and nurses’ union are all calling for an auditor general’s investigation into the funds being spent on private nursing agencies.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Chrysta Collins, spokesperson for the province’s office of the auditor general, said travel nursing is “certainly a topic that is being actively considered for audit.”

Yvette Coffey, president of the Registered Nurses’ Union Newfoundland and Labrador, said the province has done a poor job keeping track of the amount of taxpayer money being spent, and that the details in the Globe and Mail report are mind-boggling.

“The lack of oversight on behalf of Newfoundland and Labrador is astounding,” she told CBC News.

WATCH | Yvette Coffey says the auditor general needs to investigate how money is being spent on travel nurses:

Auditor general needs to investigate provincial spending on travel nurses, says union president

Yvette Coffey of N.L.’s Registered Nurses’ Union wants the auditor general to investigate the province’s spending on travel nurses. A report by the Globe and Mail found over $35 million has been spent on nurses from private agencies.

The Globe and Mail revealed that taxpayers paid, on behalf of private nursing agency CHL, a variety of nurses’ expenses including cab rides, Walmart furniture, pet transportation and an air fryer.

Osborne said the government is seeking clarification from the health authority on these expenses, as well as whether covering the expenses was specified in the contracts, or whether these were “add-ons” after contracts were signed.

The Globe and Mail report also found that CHL demanded rates paid to the agency that in some instances exceeded more than $300 an hour for each nurse, while general duty registered nurses make $37 to $47 per hour.

He said he shares the registered nurses’ union’s concerns about the cost of agency nurses. He also said, when agency nurses get paid more than permanent nurses, it can cause “morale issues” within the health authority.

He said contracts with CHL are still in place and is asking the health authority for clarification on an end date.

“I want out of agency nursing, just as much as the president of the Registered Nurses’ Union, if not more,” he said.

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