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Spending on agency nurses to staff Northern Manitoba healthcare facilities more than doubled over two years

NDP leader Wab Kinew says employing more local nurses could be better for both the health care system and northern communities.
nurse filling out paperwork Reza Estakhrian Getty Images
Spending on agency nurses to staff Northern Manitoba healthcare facilities was more than twice as high in 2021 as it was in 2019.

Spending on agency nurses to staff northern healthcare facilities has “skyrocketed” over the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and points to the need for a smarter health care system, Manitoba’s NDP leader says.

Wab Kinew, Opposition leader in the Manitoba legislature, says figures obtained by the NDP through freedom to information requests show that the Northern Regional Health Authority spent more than double on agency nurses in 2021 than it did in 2019.

NRHA spending on agency nurses totalled $11,104,331 in 2021 compared to $7,588,3295 in 2020 and $5,143,835 in 2019. The annual spending increase from the previous year in each of the last two years was more than 45 per cent.

“Were paying so much more,” Kinew said during a visit to Thompson Feb. 23-24. “It’s so much more expensive to staff our health care system in that way.”

A spokesperson for the NRHA said the higher spending is largely pandemic-driven and that it expects to spend less on agency nurses in the 2022-23 fiscal year, which begins April 1.

“However, some sites in the region have been totally to partly dependent on agency nurses for their nursing staff for some time,” said the spokesperson. “While we continue to actively recruit nurses, we will continue to use agency nurses in the interim.”

The NDP previously obtained information showing that 30 per cent of licensed practical nurse positions and 25 per cent of registered nurse positions tin the NRHA were vacant as of Nov. 1, 2021.

Relying so much on agency nurses impacts patients, Kinew said, because they may not receive continuity of care from a healthcare professional based permanently in their community. It also affects the communities they work in, since agency nurses aren’t recirculating as much of their earning s though the local economy. Depending on agency nurses can also increase how much the health region is paying for equivalent care.

“They’re paying a premium to nurses,” Kinew says, in some cases for nurses who used to be health region employees. “We’ve actually heard of nurses leaving the public system to go work in the agency because they get more control over hours and shifts. And they’re getting a premium to work on the agency side.”

At the same time that outside nurses can be getting paid more, the provincial government doesn’t seem to be willing to offer the same benefits and conditions to unionized nurses in Manitoba, Kinew says.

“The government seems to be fighting with nurses at the negotiating table when they work in the public system, and then just willing to turn around and offer those same nurses anything they want to work through a nursing agency. Why not just work with the same nurses but do so in a smarter way? If the issue’s work-life balance, why don't we take steps in the public health care system to give nurses and other health care professionals more work-life balance? If the issue is pay, can we offer them a fair wage through the public system? That's probably still going to be cheaper than what we're paying as an agency rate.”

The increase in agency nurse use in Thompson isn’t as pronounced as in the region as a whole, but spending on agency nurses did go up 65 per cent from 2019 levels by 2021. Agency nurse spending for Thompson, mostly for the emergency room, medical-surgical-pediatric unit and, to a lesser extent, the obstetrics department, went up 48 per cent from 2019 in 2020 and then increased 13 per cent from 2020 to 2021.

About a third of LPN jobs in Thompson were unfilled as of last November, as were more than a quarter of RN jobs.

To Kinew, making changes that help fill vacant positions in Thompson and other northern communities looks like a win-win scenario.

“When I show up in Thompson, then I hear from local leaders, both on the political side but also just in the community side, who are saying, ‘You need to fix the healthcare system. And you need to create jobs here and an economic future in town.’ Why don't we have a plan that puts those two things together? Why don't we fix our health care system, while creating good jobs here in the community? It's not going to be the only source of employment, but can building Thompson up as a healthcare hub for the north mean that we're creating good-paying, full-time healthcare jobs here in the community that will also help to have spinoff effects in the local economy?”

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