Vitalité, Horizon hire 'travel nurses' to help during shortage
A number of hospitals in New Brunswick are using temporary nurses in various departments
Travel nurses are being used by both New Brunswick health networks to help address the nursing shortage.
These are trained nurses who work for independent agencies. They are sent to different places to work on a temporary basis.
Hiring travel nurses costs more "without a doubt," according to Health Minister Bruce Fitch, but he said it also costs money to close a hospital, close a wing, or not be able to offer certain services.
"It's an investment in the health-care system here in the province of New Brunswick," Fitch said during a news scrum with reporters.
Hospitals across both health networks have faced closures, reduced hours and interruptions in services because of staffing shortages.
Fitch said the use of travel nurses is not forever, but "it's needed right now to make sure that the existing staff have the support in order to keep the facilities open, keep the facilities running and to make sure when people present themselves that they will get that service."
Margaret Melanson, interim president and CEO of Horizon Health Network, said that over the summer Horizon contacted private agencies to get help in emergency departments.
She said it's not a decision taken lightly, but the health network wanted to provide relief to nurses "working daily under very challenging and difficult circumstances."
She said there are fewer than 10 travel nurses working with Horizon at the moment.
Brenda Kinney, Horizon's vice-president and chief nursing officer, said travel nurses have been employed in emergency departments and intensive care units, and at the moment, they are providing relief at the Saint John Regional Hospital and the Moncton Hospital.
She added that Horizon continues to "aggressively recruit" nurses, leading to 296 registered nurses hired since the beginning of April.
Sharon Smyth-Okana, senior vice-president of clinical programs and nursing at Vitalité Health Network, said in an emailed statement, in response to a CBC News request for an interview, that the use of travel nurses is recent for Vitalité, with the first contracts being signed in July 2022.
She said in September, the nurses began providing services at the Campbellton Regional Hospital and the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton.
"It is important to say that hiring travel nurses is not a practice advocated by the Network. However, our priority is to ensure the continued delivery of quality care," said Smyth-Okana. "We do it only as a last resort and for the shortest period of time possible."
Paula Doucet, president of the New Brunswick Nurses' Union, said travel nurses are not the solution to the nursing shortage, but that there is "no single answer."
"The sad part is that we had been sounding the alarm bells for decades that we were going to be in this situation," said Doucet.
She doesn't believe there are enough travel nurses currently in the New Brunswick health-care system to make the impact that the government is hoping for. And she said it can also often be difficult for travel nurses to come into a new location with little support or orientation in place.
Doucet said she's been given a couple of figures in terms of what level of pay travel nurses are being offered to work in the province, depending on the agency and which sector.
But travel nurses are being offered much more per hour than what nurses currently in New Brunswick are making, Doucet said in an interview, but she did not have details about provisions for benefits, pension, sick days and overtime.
She said she's heard figures around $120 per hour for long-term care travel nurses, and $85 per hour for acute-care travel nurses.
CBC News tried to confirm the hourly wage of travel nurses in comparison to the wages for New Brunswick nurses. The Department of Health said the travel nurse contracts are with the regional health authorities, so they would have that information. Vitalité said in an email they are unable to provide the hourly rate paid to travel nurses, "because the companies establish global rates that include, in addition to the salary paid to nurses, administrative fees."
This is something that could "potentially sour the morale in the workplace," said Doucet, noting that it could be tough for nurses to work next to agency nurses knowing about the different pay for the same work.
Travel nurses are not the answer, said Doucet, and this is just another "Band-Aid solution."
She said there needs to be serious investments into retention and recruiting. There also needs to be more accessibility for people wanted to go into licensed practical nursing or registered nursing programs.
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