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Head of New Brunswick health network defends big spending on travel nurses

Georges L Dumont public hospital in Moncton, N.B. is shown on Thursday Oct. 8, 2020. The head of New Brunswick's francophone health network, Dr. France Desrosiers, launched a spirited defence of Vitalité's spending on travel nurse contracts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marc Grandmaison

FREDERICTON — The head of New Brunswick's francophone Vitalité Health Network launched a spirited defence Thursday of the organization's spending on travel nurse contracts.

Dr. France Desrosiers told a legislature committee the decision to contract private firms to provide temporary nurses, also known as travel nurses, was a matter of "saving human lives by maintaining essential services."

In the second half of 2022, the situation became critical with 100 beds already closed down across the network and dialysis patients getting three hours of treatment when they normally would get four.

"It was high pressure," she said. "It was one minute to midnight."

After the death of a patient in a Fredericton hospital emergency room in July 2022, Desrosiers said she was "mandated" to fix the situation at the francophone health network.

In a meeting with deputy health minister Eric Beaulieu, she was told she had the "green light" to hire travel nurses to ease the pressure, even though it could cost "tens of millions of dollars," she told the committee. She said she went ahead with the contracts only after this meeting.

The province's auditor general singled out the spending in a June 4 report, finding that between Jan. 1, 2022, and Feb. 29, 2024, Vitalité paid more than $123 million for travel nurses — including $98 million to Ontario-based agency Canadian Health Labs.

The prices charged by Canadian Health Labs under its contract with Vitalité, which continues until February 2026, were described as "exorbitant" by Health Minister Bruce Fitch.

The contracts can extend beyond February 2026 if they meet certain linguistic targets. Desrosiers said the network had little choice but to sign with Canadian Health Labs because the firm had a "monopoly" on bilingual staff.

"That made it almost impossible to negotiate a better deal," she said.

Vitalité assistant chief executive, Patrick Parent, said in fall 2022 the health network offered the government nine options, including retention bonuses, payments for unused sick leave, and bonuses for nurses who chose to stay even though they were close to retirement.

These options would have cost the government far less but were rejected so the network had no choice but to pay for travel nurses, he told reporters in between his testimony before the committee.

Green member Megan Mitton said she doesn't think the legislature has got "completely at the bottom" of the government's spending on travel nurses.

Liberal member of legislative assembly Keith Chiasson said Vitalité was left with little choice but to hire travel nurses. He said he'd like to question Beaulieu in light of the new information presented by Desrosiers, who said she was given the go-ahead by Beaulieu to enter into private nursing contracts.

"For sure I'd like another kick at the can to ask him — to ask him why."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2024.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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