Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson says she has no issue with health authorities funnelling millions of dollars to private nursing agencies, after more than $36 million was spent covering chronic staff shortages in the past fiscal year.
"I’m more concerned about Manitobans getting the care they need when they need it," Stefanson said in response to questions from the Free Press following an unrelated press conference at Assiniboine Park.
The Free Press has reported that agency nurses cost provincial health authorities an average of $3.3 million a month during the first 11 months of the 2021-22 fiscal year.
"Whatever we need to do to ensure we can expedite (the delivery of health care), that’s what we’re going to do," Stefanson said.
"We want to make sure that nurses are there when we need them."
The premier skipped question period Tuesday to attend a news conference for the Toba Centre for Children and Youth, in which she announced $2 million for its capital campaign. The organization, which works with victims of abuse, plans to open a new facility at Assiniboine Park, located in Stefanson’s constituency.
In her absence, Deputy Premier Cliff Cullen and Health Minister Audrey Gordon answered opposition questions about the government’s growing dependency on agency nurses.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the government’s reliance on private-sector workers displays a lack of fiscal responsibility; agency nurses cost Shared Health a flat rate of $65 an hour, while nurses in the public health system are paid between $38 and $47 an hour.
Over the past two years, spending on agency nurses increased by 38 per cent, to just under $40 million in 2021-22 from $25 million in 2019-20.
In 2017-18, the first fiscal year under the Tory government, the province spent $13.3 million on agency nurses.
"That’s $40 million that could have been used to hire nurses in the public system. Not only does this cost more, it disrupts the care that patients receive," Kinew said.
Cullen pointed to the $7.2 billion the his government has budgeted to spend on health care this year and said the province is recruiting nurses and doctors to Manitoba.
"We’re going to make sure that Manitoba nurses are there for Manitobans when they need them," Cullen said.
Challenged by NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara to justify spending close to $40 million on agency nurses, Gordon shot back, saying the former NDP government should have taken corrective action; she blamed the NDP for not doing more to add nurses to the public health system when it was in government.
"In the last few years of the NDP’s government, they spent over $46 million on agency nurses," Gordon said. "Why did the NDP government in their 17 years in government not see that $46 million that was going to agency nurses required a strategy to address hiring nurses."
"We’re going to make sure that Manitoba nurses are there for Manitobans when they need them." – Deputy Premier Cliff Cullen
The health minister did not speak to reporters following question period and her press secretary said Gordon had to be in the house to debate the budget.
Asagwara and Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the reliance on private-sector nurses will continue to choke the health-care system while lining the pockets of corporations.
In the short term, Asagwara said staffing hospitals and personal care homes with agency nurses will mean patients and families will suffer; but in the long term, the reliance on agencies will push more workers out of the public system.
"Ultimately, nurses are fed up with this government not listening to them," Asagwara, a former nurse, said. "What you have now are nurses saying that they don’t want to work under this government, they don’t want to deal with the conditions this government has forced upon them."
Lamont described the Progressive Conservatives’ spending on agency nurses as "stepping over a dollar to save a dime" that will cost the province more in the long run.
"It’s not good for these communities who are affected, it’s not good for our health-care system, and ultimately it’s not good for the nurses," Lamont said.
"There are people who want to work here, who want to work as nurses, but this government seems to be doing what it can to actually avoid hiring people into the public system."
— with files from Carol Sanders
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.