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Travel nurse expenses in New Brunswick concern province: union

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New Brunswick's French language health service says expenses exceeding revenue over the first 11 months of the past fiscal year were close to $98 million.

The main reason, the cost of 190 full-time equivalent agency staff, or travel nurses, needed to maintain services at the Vitalité Health Network.

New Brunswick Health Minister Bruce Fitch was asked about the cost and what the province plans to do about it.

“We're working with Vitalité, trying to find ways that they can, one alleviate their needs for travel nurses and there's a significant recruitment going on right now within our department, within Vitalité,” said Fitch.

Travel nurses have been needed to fill critical gaps in the province's health-care system, but they're costing a lot of money.

The New Brunswick Nurses Union recently discovered that, during a five-month period in 2023, Vitalité and the Horizon Health Network spent close to $57 million on contracts for travel nurses.

Union president Paula Doucet said she wasn’t surprised to hear about Vitalité’s expenses exceeding revenue by $97.8 million.

“We were shocked actually at the amount of money that has been paid out. However, recognizing that because they have really not done a great job of retaining or recruiting new staff, their hands were tied and this was their only outlet to continue to provide care to New Brunswickers,” said Doucet.

On Tuesday, Horizon Health Network president and CEO Margaret Melanson said they're in the process of phasing out travel nurses.

“We are down to, I believe, less than 35 travel nurses across the organization,” said Melanson. “We have a target to have all of those travel nurses phased out by August. That's our intention at this time.”

Doucet said the nurses union also thinks it’s doable to phase them out.

“Up until two years ago we didn’t have travel nurses here in the province. We’ve relied heavily on them for the past two years and I think it’s a Band-Aid solution and I think anything is doable if we put the resources in the right place in order to retain and attract nurses to this province,” said Doucet.

A hospital bed at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre is pictured in Moncton, N.B., on April 24, 2024.

One possible solution is international recruitment.

Fitch said the province and Vitalité are specifically targeting French-speaking countries like France, Morocco and Belgium. However, recruiting professionals to work up north is proving difficult.

“There's less Francophone nurses available throughout New Brunswick and throughout Canada and throughout the globe,” said Fitch. “They've got some of the northern communities, which again are a little harder to recruit to, and that's why there are incentives for people to go to those areas and to work in those facilities.”

Doucet believes international recruitment is just part of the puzzle and not the only solution.

“There are domestic folks here that if they were to try to attract and get them to take nursing as a possible career choice we would be better served,” said Doucet.

There are parameters in place when it comes to international recruiting, Doucet said, that prohibit countries from taking too many professionals from less wealthy countries.

She stressed that recruitment and retention go hand-in-hand and the province and the health network needs to make sure they put some emphasis on retaining the experienced staff that are already here.

“Every new nurse that’s coming into our system needs to have a very robust orientation and mentorship program,” said Doucet. “Without those experienced nurses to provide that we’re actually setting up new recruits to fail.”

For more New Brunswick news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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