Liberals say Higgs 'savings fund' has enough cash for Nova Scotia-style nurse bonuses
A generous bonus program to keep nurses on the job in Nova Scotia continues to generate political debate next door in New Brunswick.
The opposition Liberals say the Higgs government's so-called "New Brunswick Advantage Savings Fund" — announced just last month — has nearly enough money to provide nurses here with matching incentives.
"You guys have so much money you're creating savings accounts," finance critic René Legacy said during Question Period.
He pointed out that the value of the fund, $300 million, is roughly what Nova Scotia says it will spend giving bonuses to nurses and other health care workers who are already in the system.
"Just a weird twist of irony," Legacy said. "Talk about choices."
New Brunswick is not offering any bonuses for nurses who are in the workforce now.
The province announced the advantage fund last month, when it projected an $862 million budget surplus for 2022-23 in its third-quarter fiscal update.
Finance officials acknowledged that there is no actual, dedicated fund or account where the $300 million will be deposited.
Rather, it "sits in bank accounts of the province," they said, with the government calculating how much interest the money will earn and eventually spending that amount.
Budget documents for 2023-24, tabled this week, show an expense of zero for the fund in 2022-23, reflecting that the unspent money will become part of the surplus when the fiscal year ends on March 31.
"We know what happens with that. It just goes on the debt," Legacy said.
The Liberal MLA said the province could choose instead to use that money for nurse bonuses here, as long as the money is earmarked by March 31.
The government's budget on Tuesday included an additional $29.7 million for recruiting new nurses to come to New Brunswick.
But that had already been one-upped by Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston's announcement the day before that his government will give $10,000 bonuses to nurses who worked full-time in the past year and another $10,000 if they promise to stay on the job until 2026.
"How can we show nurses and health care professionals the same level of commitment that you show us?" Houston said when he made the announcement. "How can we say thank you?"
The total value of the package for nurses and other health-care workers was about $330 million, Houston said.
'Help is coming,' says Fitch
New Brunswick Health Minister Bruce Fitch called the announcement "a disappointment" because "it does put a lot of pressure on the other provinces."
Fitch and Premier Blaine Higgs have argued that addressing quality-of-work issues that create stress for nurses — such as scheduling, supplies and vacation problems — is a better way to spend taxpayer dollars than bonuses.
That includes using recruitment bonuses to get more nurses into the workforce so that those already on the job get the time off and vacations they deserve.
"We're having positive results that will see more people on the floor," Fitch said in Question Period on Friday. "The help is coming."
He pointed out the overall health budget is increasing by 10.6 per cent in the 2023-24 fiscal year.
Higgs said there was "little comparison" between the $300 million savings fund and the $330 million Houston was devoting to bonuses.
"There's not a connection there, and I think the opposition need to just think a little longer about how we make the best use of solving our problems in the hospitals and look at all factors of compensation," he said.
"The whole concept of basically saying 'how can I find more ways to spend taxpayer dollars' is flawed in its basic principle. 'How can I find better ways to get value out of taxpayer dollars' is a more appropriate question."
The 2023-24 budget estimates shows $13 million being spent from the fund in the coming year, reflecting the interest the $300 million will have earned.
Higgs said that could be spent in areas such as housing or health, but Legacy said the fact it hasn't been allocated to anything shows that what he calls the "super savings account" isn't real.
"It's just movement of money," the Liberal MLA told reporters.
He said if the government doesn't want to spend the money on nurse bonuses, there are other areas such as housing aid where it would be useful.
New Brunswick is offering $10,000 to nurses who move to New Brunswick, along with additional money to help with moving costs and to encourage them to work in harder-to-serve areas.
Higgs acknowledged Friday the Nova Scotia bonuses had given the Liberals ammunition but said they didn't seem to have found much else to fault in the budget.
"Had the Nova Scotia situation — had those decisions not been made in the last while, the opposition wouldn't have much to talk about, would they?" he said to reporters.