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N.B. Premier calls Vitalité’s comments 'inaccurate,' in government involvement on travel nurse contracts

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After three days of committee hearings on what led to multi-million dollar contracts to hire travel nurses, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs is now weighing in.

Higgs responded directly to comments made by Vitalité Health Network’s CEO Dr. France Desrosiers during Thursday’s public accounts meeting, where she said the province had given her the ‘green light’ to move forward and secure travel nurses to fill gaps in the healthcare system.

She said she made a presentation to the deputy health minister, in July of 2022, explaining the situation the health network was facing.

“We had a meeting, the trustee, myself and the deputy minister, where he said that we have the green light to go ahead with the mandate to secure all our departments and services,” she said.

When asked if she had made it clear that would mean hiring travel nurses at a cost of million of dollars, she said, “Yes, he was aware.”

The Premier said in a statement Friday afternoon – that’s not true.

“While there was an urgency to fill vacancies during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was absolutely no direction by our government or by public servants for the CEO to sign long-term contracts,” he stated.

He also refuted comments made by Vitalité’s executive that options presented to government in the fall of 2022 would have cost less than the travel nurse contracts.

Some of those options included retention bonuses, or allowing better vacation time to nurses.

“Vitalité was proposing long-term, permanent changes to how nurses are compensated, which ultimately would have cost taxpayers significantly more,” he said. “Nor could the options presented by Vitalité be unilaterally implemented by the government. Any changes to compensation for nurses, including pay, vacation days, etcetera, would need to be negotiated with the Nurses’ Union.”

CTV Atlantic did request an interview with the premier and the health minister following the committee hearings – but has only received statements.

Vitalité’s CEO responded to the premier’s statement, saying she was opting to take the “high road” when it comes to Higgs’ comments on approvals and her leadership.

“Very unfortunate that we are at this stage. To bring further transparency, the measures proposed were not intended to be permanent and amounted to $25 million for the Network for each year they would be in place,” she stated.

CTV Atlantic did not request an interview following that statement, but Vitalité said Monday it may have more to share later in the week.

At its peak, in September 2022, Vitalité was using 199 travel nurses a day. However, Desrosiers said in 2022-23 they averaged about 100 travel nurses per day.

She also said 79 of their departments were experiencing critical shortages of staff, patients were receiving 1.3 fewer hours of care each day, 100 beds had already closed, and 50 patients requiring hemodialysis were at risk of not receiving their treatment.

Former health minister calls for judicial public inquiry

At the very end of Thursday’s committee meeting, former health minister Dorothy Shephard said further information is required to move forward on the issue.

“Before we're all done, it's going to be about $340 million, of which about $280 million will be attributed specifically to Vitalité,” she said.

And while Shephard acknowledged how difficult the situation has been for Vitalité, and patient and staff safety are “paramount,” she said she’s not ‘convinced’ the problem is being fixed.

“I really think there's cause for more investigation. I really feel that, the trustees need to be spoken to. I believe Canada Health Labs need to be spoken to,” she said. “I really feel with the amount of money we're talking about that we should have a judicial public inquiry so that we can talk to people who do not present themselves here to this committee and, to really get to the very end of what we need to know about all of this.”

Shephard said she would not be making those comments outside the committee chamber, and also acknowledged that the committee would discuss next steps together.

CTV Atlantic has attempted to reach Canada Health Labs, with which Vitalité remains under contract, but hasn’t heard back.

N.B. Nurses urging leaders to take responsibility ‘and do better’

Paula Doucet says she remembers the presentation of nine options to alleviate the need for travel nurses that Vitalite and Horizon made to government in the fall of 2022.

Several of those options, she says, had to do with retention – including bonuses for experienced nurses. She said it ‘came on the heels’ of the retention bonuses N.L. and P.E.I. had unveiled, and that she had also asked government about retention strategies.

She said that request was rejected.

After hearing the comments made during this week’s committee meeting, Doucet says she supports Shephard’s calls for a public inquiry.

“At the end of the day, it's about accountability and it's about transparency, and it's about taking responsibility,” she said. “Decisions were made in a crisis, I get it. Take responsibility for those decisions and own that. But know today, with more information, you can do better.”

For more New Brunswick news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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