Central Health spent over $4M on travel nurses in less than a year

Central Health says it has spent over $4 million on private agency nurses between January and September 2022.  (CBC - image credit)
Central Health says it has spent over $4 million on private agency nurses between January and September 2022. (CBC - image credit)

Central Health spent $4.2 million on private agency nurses between January and September of this year, CBC News has learned.

The Newfoundland and Labrador health authority, which is responsible for about 93,000 people, said as of November it had 62 travel nurses on site, with 86 contracts having been completed by the same date. A spokesperson from Central Health said that some nurses have completed multiple stints.

Of the $4.2 million total, $1.2 million was spent on long-term care.

The use of private nurses skyrocketed across Canada in the last year as the health-care system struggled to retain and recruit nurses and other medical professionals.

But questions surround the level of due diligence provided by private nursing companies, after a woman in Gander allegedly faked her registered nursing qualifications at a long-term care home this week.

Central Health said this week that 43-year-old Lisa Driscoll was able to work 25 shifts at Lakeside Homes, despite not having a licence.

CBC News was able to find Driscoll's name on a list of known unlicensed nurses published in Ontario. A search of archived versions of the page show her name was there before she was hired to work at Lakeside Homes.

Driscoll, who also goes by Lisa Strickland, was convicted in 2021 of criminal negligence causing death after her four-year-old son was poisoned to death.

Central Health said Driscoll worked for a travel nursing agency, Solutions Staffing Inc., which is based in Vancouver. The company has not responded to repeated calls and emails from CBC News.

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Yvette Coffey, president of the Registered Nurses' Union of Newfoundland and Labrador, has long warned of the consequences of private companies on the public health system.

"These travel nurses work side-by-side with registered nurses working in our public system who face enormous pressure to care for patients in communities throughout our province," said Coffey in a statement Thursday.

"They get paid twice as much or more and have actual control over their life and schedule."

Coffey said the regional health authorities spent $8.8 million on private travel nurses in less than one year.

Labrador-Grenfell Health has used agency nurses in the past to fill gaps in hard-to-staff areas, like the isolated north coast. However, it was a relatively new endeavour for the other health authorities across the province.

Agency nurses are ultimately paid with public funds, even though they work for private companies.

In a CBC Investigates piece this summer, Eastern Health said the average cost per 12-hour day worked, which varies depending on the area of assignment, is about $1,100.

At the time, Health Minister Tom Osborne said he agreed with Coffey but called the contracts a necessity in order to keep the health-care system afloat.

In an interview in December, Central Health CEO Andrée Robichaud lamented staffing challenges, and said the James Paton Memorial Regional Health Centre alone has a 40 per cent nursing vacancy rate.

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