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N.L. health authority shelled out more than $90M on travel nurses in 2023

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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 on private nursing agencies.

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 on private nursing agencies.

Yvette Coffey, president of the Registered Nurses’ Union Newfoundland and Labrador, says the government’s spending on travel nurses undermines recruitment and retention efforts. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services spent $91 million on travel nursing in 2023 — and the president of the provincial nurses’ union says it undermines efforts to retain and recruit nurses.

According to documents obtained by an access-to-information request filed by CBC News, broken down by the four regional health authorities — which were amalgamated into N.L. Health Services in April 2023— $18,122,308.66 was spent in Eastern Health, $4,141,056.76 was spent in Labrador-Grenfell Health, $27,107,020.40 was spent in Western Health and $41,558,111.26 was spent in Central Health.

The document also shows that spending rose throughout the year: $3.8 million was spent in January, but that ballooned to $13 million in October and $11 million in December.

“My first reaction is as our members are here being nickel and dimed on a daily basis,” said Yvette Coffey, president of the Registered Nurses’ Union Newfoundland and Labrador, on Friday.

She said her members are currently fighting for a long-service premium payout that was negotiated in their collective agreement, signed in August. A few days ago, she said, the union was told it would not be getting that money that week like they anticipated.

“So we have some very upset members. And then to hear that $90 million was spent on travel agencies? This is not a retention strategy, in our opinion,” she said.

“If we’re going to retain the people that are working in the system and holding it together, we need to be showing them more respect and we need to be valuing them as individuals working in this system.”

Coffey said it also undermines the provincial government’s own efforts to recruit and retain nurses, because travel nurses make significantly more than registered nurses. On top of that, she added, travel nurses have more flexibility on where and how much they work.

The document also reveals disproportionate spending among zones.

While the Central zone encompasses about 17 per cent of N.L.’s population, it accounted for 46 per cent of travel nurse spending in 2023.

The companies that received money last year are CHL, 911, Goodwill, Augury, Northern Medical, Express, Select Medical, Priority Care, Teal, New Horizons and Solutions Staffing.

Plans to reduce travel nurses

Earlier this month, the health authority said it plans to reduce the number of private health-care staff from around 340 to around 60 people — which health authority CEO David Diamond says is the pre-pandemic level — by April 2026.

Diamond also said the health authority anticipates spending $70 million this year on agency nurses.

Coffey said the health authority needs to bring travel nurse spending under control. Registered nurses are willing to work in rural and remote areas if their pay is increased, she said.

Travel nurse spending gained scrutiny after a Globe and Mail report revealed the government spent $35.6 million on nurses from private agencies within the span of just five months — April to August 2023 — and shelled out cash for travel nurses’ training and cable bills, among other expenses.

Health Minister Tom Osborne has previously called hiring travel nurses a “necessary evil” in order to staff the health-care system during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and said the provincial government has ramped up recruitment and retention measures in order to reduce reliance on travel nurses.

In March, Newfoundland and Labrador’s auditor general’s office announced it wouldlaunch an investigation into the province’s health sector contracts.

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