The use of nurses from private agencies at Vitalité has increased sharply in 2022, documents show

The emergency room of Dr.  Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Center in Moncton is one of the locations where Vitalité uses nurses from private agencies.  (Patrick Lacelle/Radio-Canada - photo credit)

The emergency room of Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Center in Moncton is one of the locations where Vitalité uses private nurses. (Patrick Lacelle/Radio-Canada – photo credit)

Vitalité Health Network spent nearly $6 million hiring nurses from private agencies last year, according to documents obtained under the Right to Information Act.

That’s 12 times more than the Horizon Health Network spent on agency nurses.

Vitalité wants to end the controversial practice of traveling nurses paying more than their permanent colleagues within two years, according to Sharon Smyth-Okana, senior vice president of programs and nursing.

Right now, she said, the use of private agencies is not only necessary but is expected to increase in the coming months – for nurses, nursing assistants and caregivers.

“To be able to provide services to patients – safe services, we need more hands.”

Hospitals in both healthcare networks have faced closures, short-time work and service disruptions due to staff shortages.

Horizon also anticipates an increase in the use of private agency caregivers, but with an earlier goal of finishing this fall.

Meanwhile, the provincial government has also used agency nurses, documents from the New Brunswick Nurses Union show.

From January to April 2022, the government paid $2.68 million to Canadian Health Labs. This money was used, among other things, to send nurses to COVID-19 vaccination clinics.

Primarily for Moncton and Campbellton emergency rooms

Vitalité paid $5,943,054 to three agencies to send traveling nurses between July and December 2022, documents obtained by Radio-Canada Acadie show.

Almost the entire sum was used to sponsor nurses into the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Center in Moncton, Zone 1 and Campbellton Regional Hospital, in Zone 5.

The nurses worked 20,098 hours, mostly in the emergency rooms at the two hospitals, as well as at Moncton’s hemodialysis unit.

Evan Mitsui/CBC

Evan Mitsui/CBC

The average hourly cost for a traveling nurse was $295. This includes nurses’ salaries — $70 to $100 an hour, about double what their salaried counterparts pay — as well as travel and administrative expenses.

Horizon has also called on private agencies to support its teams at Moncton Hospital and Saint John Regional Hospital. $475,786 was spent between October and late December 2022.

Last way out

According to Smyth-Okana, Vitalité views the use of traveling nurses as a last resort.

The health network tried some other things first, she said. For example, hospitals are using more nurses and changes have been made to care models.

Pascal Raiche-Nogue/Radio Canada

Pascal Raiche-Nogue/Radio Canada

However, without the agency’s nurses, Vitalité would have had to close certain units, she said. This includes Dumont Hospital’s hemodialysis unit, which is struggling with a “critical staff shortage.”

“Our staff did an incredible job, working overtime and trying to rearrange some things. But we cannot push the employees like that for long.”

comparisons difficult

Smyth-Okana suggested that “a few factors” might explain the difference in spending between Vitalité and Horizon.

For example, emergency services and nurse shortages may not be exactly the same from one network to another, she said.

“So it’s easy to compare us, but it might not be all apple-to-apple. So sometimes you have to be careful.”

Smyth-Okana says it’s also more difficult to recruit tenured nurses within Vitalité because there are fewer French-speaking than English-speaking nurses, both in Canada and abroad.

Temporary measure

The use of private agencies is a temporary measure, she said.

“It is an intervention of last resort that has a beginning and an end. It’s not something you want to continue for five, 10, or 15 years. It’s not in our goals at all.

“It’s possible in the short term to restore our work atmosphere, reduce the workload and make caregivers want to stay in our communities.”

Meanwhile, the network is addressing recruitment and retention issues and has a goal of eliminating the need for agencies by 2025, Smyth-Okana said.

“Our goal is really maximum for the next two years.”

Horizon Health Network said it recently decided to send agency nurses to more hospitals and units.

“The use of traveling nurses will continue throughout the spring and summer. The expected end date is September 1, 2023, after which a review, evaluation and recommendations will be made,” the documents read.

Move not supported by union

The trend of paying millions of dollars to private agencies is not welcomed by the New Brunswick Nurses Union.

According to First Vice President Maria Richard, the arrival of these health workers in hospitals often creates uneasiness.

“Members tell us they understand why these nurses come, but they find it a lack of respect,” she said.

What bothers some nurses, she said, is that their agency peers are paid much better and need more coaching.

“They need more training and support in their day-to-day work because they are not there [permanently] and they’re not used to this work,” Richard said.

Patrick Lacelle/Radio Canada

Patrick Lacelle/Radio Canada

Like Smyth-Okana, she regularly speaks to nurses, who witness the effects of the staff shortage and ask for backup.

“That is reality. And if private nurses allow our nurses to work less overtime, it doesn’t matter. But the rest of us certainly don’t see that as a solution.”

Richard wants healthcare networks and government to focus more on recruiting, retaining and improving working conditions.


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