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N.B. deputy minister says urgent situation prompted need for travel nurses from private companies


The New Brunswick Department of Social Development is the third government body to answer questions at a legislative committee meeting focused on the $173 million spent on travel nursing contracts.

Deputy Minister Jim Mehan described the situation as urgent, which is why the department spent almost $3 million on obtaining travel nurses from two private companies to fill gaps in the long-term care sector.

Those two companies - Plan A and Canadian Health Labs - were the two private agencies the department signed contracts with, between February and July of 2022.

But Mehan said the contracts were shorter in length because the department knew there would be complications in bringing in out-of-province nurses, like the differences in pay.

"We tried to keep it as short as possible. The effort was get in, get the support we needed and get out," he said.

Progressive Conservative MLA Ross Wetmore acknowledged the need. He said at least one long-term care home in his riding used travel nurses and he believes they were warranted. But he said it shouldn't have led to a lack of oversight.

"Just because we have a pandemic doesn't mean we can throw all our rules and regulations out the window," he said during a question directed to Mehan.

He asked why the department only sought resources from four private agencies when the health authorities scanned more than 30.

"We probably could have identified more. But we were under a sense of urgency, we needed to act quickly and that's why we stopped at four," he said.

Wetmore said he didn't believe that was a legitimate excuse.

Mehan also admitted they didn't do a jurisdictional scan to see what other provinces were doing when met with these challenges, despite that being the normal protocol.

Wetmore continued, asking several times why the contracts weren't legally reviewed by the Office of the Attorney General.

"I cannot understand the Province of New Brunswick agreeing to CHL (Canadian Health Labs), I don't care how hard up we are," he said. "I can't believe as a government we would not have a legal team in there advising us what to do...I just can't believe that your department did any negotiations and did not have legal advice?"

He couldn't say why, but Mehan confirmed the Office of the Attorney General did not review the contract.

In the end, roughly 40 homes saw travel nurses added to their staff during that time.

Vulnerable sector checks 'skipped'

While it normally required ‘client-facing employees' to have a criminal record and vulnerable sector check, the department signed one contract that did not require those travel nurses to provide those things, according to the auditor general's report.

That one contract was with Canadian Health Labs, which stated “the Minister shall facilitate any training and background checks required by the Minister, including Criminal Record checks and Social Development Record Checks."

Liberal MLA Robert Gauvin asked why the province asks more from its own employees who are paid less.

"How come this was, for a lack of a better word, this was skipped?" asked Gauvin.

"This clearly was a gap, a very serious gap, that occurred when this contract was entered into. And I acknowledge that on behalf of the department," said Mehan.

"This cannot happen again," said Gauvin.

Earlier this month, Auditor General Paul Martin released a scathing report looking into the contracts, calling them shocking and risky.

Martin said some contracts had an auto-renewal clause, weren’t signed by both parties, or signed by the wrong person altogether.

Department prioritizes recruitment over retention

Gauvin also asked what work is being done to retain the long-term care workers in New Brunswick.

Mehan said the department is mostly discussing recruitment, and aiming to support the directors and managers of long-term care homes in their efforts to retain workers.

He said they're making international recruitment campaigns, which have resulted in some staffing gaps being filled.

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