Health minister won't express confidence in Vitalité CEO

New Brunswick's health minister has refused to give the Vitalité health authority's CEO a vote of confidence over the travel-nurse issue.

Bruce Fitch refused to tell reporters Thursday whether he thinks Dr. France Desrosiers should remain in the position following this week's scathing audit of the health authority's contracts with Canadian Health Labs.

"That's a good question. We changed the governance," Fitch said, referring to the re-establishment of health authority boards last year.

"She's now an employee of the board. The board now hires and fires the CEO."

A report this week by Auditor General Paul Martin criticized Vitalité's signing of three contracts with Canadian Health Labs, concluding the agreements "were not reflective of best practices and did not demonstrate value for money."

Dr. France Desrosiers, president and CEO of Vitalité Health Network
Dr. France Desrosiers is president and CEO of Vitalité Health Network. Health Minister Bruce Fitch repeatedly avoided commenting on whether he thinks the Vitalité board should terminate her employment. (Bader Ben Amara/Radio-Canada)

Martin questioned why the health authority did not seek bids from other companies and did not submit the agreement to legal review by provincial government lawyers.

Fitch echoed some of that criticism Thursday.

"There were other travel-nurse companies out there that were hired that had better terms," said the minister, who earlier in the week accused Canadian Health Labs of "predator pricing" by using leverage it had during a health crisis to get advantageous terms.

Martin's audit also faulted Vitalité for not handing over three of its own internal audits on its use of travel nurses — for which it paid the company up to $300 per hour per nurse — and for agreeing to auto-renewal causes that could extend the costly agreements for years.

Even so, Fitch repeatedly avoided commenting on whether he thinks the Vitalité board should keep or terminate Desrosiers.

"Now that decision rests with the board and we should leave those decisions with the board," he said.

"I don't think that a decision or a discussion for me today."

Auditor General Paul Martin's report said 46 per cent of bus drivers included in the audit didn't meet licensing standards.
Auditor General Paul Martin questioned why the health authority did not seek bids from other companies and did not submit the agreement to legal review by provincial government lawyers. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

The Vitalité and Horizon health authority boards were re-established last year after two years during which the boards were run by trustees reporting to Premier Blaine Higgs.

The first Vitalité contract with Canadian Health Labs was signed in July 2022, just days after the board was suspended.

Fitch gave a stronger defence of the Department of Social Development's contract with the company for travel nurses in long-term care homes, signed earlier in 2022 when he was minister at that department.

The opposition Liberals focused on that contract in Thursday's Question Period.

"A lot of money has gone unaccounted for without the kinds of checks and balances many New Brunswickers use for their own businesses and their own work," Liberal Leader Susan Holt said.

She asked current Social Development Minister Jill Green why the department didn't put the contract out for bids.

Green said long-term care homes experienced around 400 positive COVID tests at the time and had to move fast.

Later, Fitch reminded reporters that the Liberals were part of an all-party COVID cabinet committee that worked on the government's pandemic response at the time.

And while the Canadian Health Labs contract wasn't put to that committee for approval, the Liberals "know how quickly decisions had to be made," Fitch said.

"I will trump saving lives in nursing homes over procedural matters any day of the week. … If the opposition is worried about some receipts, those procedures hopefully will be corrected."