April 13, 2024
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The Campbellton Regional Hospital in northern New Brunswick.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

New Brunswick officials paid for the meal allowances of nurses and orderlies deployed to the province by private staffing agency Canadian Health Labs, but that money was never passed on to the company’s workers, according to nine sources, as well as documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.

A Globe investigation into the skyrocketing costs of private travel nursing published in February found that CHL invoiced health authorities in Newfoundland and Labrador $1.6-million in meal allowances for the nurses it dispatched to that province, but told workers they were required to pay for their own food. Newfoundland’s province’s Liberal government has asked its comptroller-general to probe those billings.

The Globe has confirmed that the same billing discrepancy took place in New Brunswick, a province that leaned more heavily on CHL than Newfoundland. The province’s Vitalité Health Network, which delivers French-language medical services, paid CHL for meal allowances for its travelling staff, but the company’s workers were told they were on their own when it came to paying for meals, documents and interviews show.

Unlike Newfoundland, The Globe has been unable to determine the total cost of the meals billed to Vitalité by CHL. The company’s current nursing deal with Vitalité runs to 2026 and is worth a maximum of $93-million.

Toronto-based CHL entered the travel nursing business during the pandemic and quickly carved out a niche relocating health care workers to Atlantic Canada so they could take on jobs at understaffed health facilities.

As part of its contracts with Vitalité, CHL charged taxpayers $46 a day for meal allowances for each out-of-province nurse or personal support worker, the health authority confirmed to The Globe.

But nine nurses CHL assigned to Vitalité told The Globe that they never received any per diems from CHL for food. The Globe is not naming the nurses because they signed non-disclosure agreements.

Based on the length of time those nurses worked in New Brunswick, The Globe calculates CHL would have billed Vitalité, for those nine workers alone, more than $105,000 in meal allowances.

CHL is part of a private nursing industry that thrived across the country as health care facilities were overwhelmed by COVID-19. A Globe survey of provinces and territories found that provincial spending on these private agencies has skyrocketed since the pandemic began.

It is difficult to determine exactly how many nurses CHL has transplanted to New Brunswick, and how many meal allowances it has collected there. The company’s contracts with Vitalité gave it the right during certain periods to deploy and bill for up to 30 nurses and 70 personal support workers at a time.

One of the nine nurses who spoke with The Globe said he knew dozens of other CHL personnel posted to New Brunswick, none of whom received money for meals.

Through sources, The Globe obtained two employment offers signed by CHL nurses who were sent to New Brunswick. The documents say specifically that “food/groceries/take out is the sole responsibility of said contractor and CHL does not provide any financial reimbursement.” (The company considers nurses contractors, not employees.)

Contracts that CHL signed with nurses it sent to Newfoundland, also obtained by The Globe, include the same language.

Vitalité confirmed that it has been paying CHL the $46 meal allowances. Asked if it had verified that the money had gone to workers, it said in a statement that “it is up to Canadian Health Labs to honour its commitment to its employees.” The health authority would not provide the total amount it has paid. “You will have to verify with CHL,” it said in a subsequent statement.

CHL did not respond to several requests from The Globe to explain the discrepancy in its handling of meal allowances.

Although Vitalité has declined to release documents related to its travel nursing arrangements, The Globe obtained the authority’s contracts with CHL through other sources. Newfoundland released its contracts with CHL in response to freedom of information requests.

These contracts show that CHL billed regional health authorities in the two Atlantic provinces at rates of up to $300 an hour per nurse, twice what other agencies charged and six times what local nurses earn in the public system.

CHL previously responded to The Globe’s questions with a statement saying that its contracts are fair, transparent and “tailored to meet each jurisdiction’s significant local needs.”

The statement said CHL’s prices “reflect the extraordinary logistical challenges of getting and keeping health care professionals in rural, remote and underserved communities.”

The Globe’s reporting has prompted union leaders and opposition politicians to urge provincial auditors-general to examine contracts with private nursing agencies.

Last week, Newfoundland Health Minister Tom Osborne asked the Office of the Comptroller-General, the government branch that oversees public finances in the province, to conduct a review of health authorities’ dealings with CHL.

Vitalité’s chief executive officer, France Desrosiers, has said her organization, like health authorities elsewhere, had to turn to private agencies to compensate for severe staff shortages made worse by the pandemic – a problem compounded by Vitalité’s need to have French-speaking personnel.

Susan Holt, Leader of New Brunswick’s Official Opposition Liberals, said in an interview that the issue of the meal allowances is worrying. “It’s unacceptable that our government is paying out money with no receipt for no benefit,” she said. “This company is taking advantage of our situation. We have to ensure good use and value for taxpayer dollars.”

She said Vitalité needs to find out what happened to the money it spent.

“If I were Vitalité, I’d be taking it up with CHL that they’ve charged us for food that hasn’t made its way into the hands of the nurses. … I think that’s a conversation that should happen.”

In an interview with CBC Radio on Tuesday, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said he expects Vitalité to investigate and report to its board. “This is a situation where it seems like we could have gotten better value,” the Premier said.

Newfoundland’s Official Opposition has written to the RCMP, asking the force to look into CHL’s handling of the meal allowances. Ms. Holt said that in New Brunswick it is up to Vitalité to decide whether to involve the police.

“It doesn’t seem like good business practice,” she said, “to lay something out in a contract, charge for it, but then not deliver it as written.”

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