Health minister questions need for travel-nurse inquiry

Health minister questions need for travel-nurse inquiry

New Brunswick’s health minister is questioning the need for a public inquiry into costly travel-nurse contracts — an idea supported by some of his party colleagues, including his predecessor as health minister.

Bruce Fitch told reporters he wasn’t sure an inquiry would resolve some of the contradictions that came to light last week during three days of legislative hearings into the agreements.

“You’re going to have two versions of what happened, and people may still not be convinced that their version isn’t the correct version,” he told reporters.

“I’m just wondering, where we are trying to focus on patient outcomes … would it be a worthwhile effort?”

A woman speaking into several microphones and tape recorders.
Dorothy Shephard, seen here in a file photo, is a former PC health minister. She was the first to float the idea of an inquiry. (CBC)

The legislature’s all-party public accounts committee voted last Thursday to call for the inquiry after hearings that at times produced differing accounts of what happened.

“Given the magnitude of public funding involved in the travel nurse contracts,” it says, the committee was seeking an inquiry because “there are questions that remain unanswered and gaps in information that have not been addressed,” said the email by committee chair Chuck Chiasson, a Liberal MLA, said in a Monday email to Cheryl Hansen, the clerk of executive council. 

WATCH | ‘Two versions of what happened’:

All-party committee calls for public inquiry into travel nurses

Chair of legislature’s public accounts committee says MLAs agreed inquiry is needed into costly travel nurse contracts.

Former PC health minister Dorothy Shephard was the first to float the idea in the final minutes of last week’s hearings.

“I don’t know that we know everything yet,” she said, suggesting the total cost of the contracts could reach $340 million by the end of the last contract in 2026. 

“I’m not convinced, through everything that we’ve heard, that we’re fixing the problem,” she said. “I really think there’s cause for more investigation.” 

Under the provincial Inquiries Act, a commissioner appointed by the province to conduct an inquiry would have the power to call witnesses and demand the release of documents.

The legislative committee itself doesn’t have the power to order an inquiry. Only the provincial cabinet can do that. 

“I’m not optimistic that the government will want to embark on a public inquiry,” Chiasson told CBC.

WATCH | ‘We were not satisfied,’ says committee chair on inquiry call:

Health minister cool on call for travel-nurse inquiry

Bruce Fitch says auditor general, committee put out a lot of information, and inquiry might not resolve remaining questions

Fitch didn’t rule it out completely but said the recent report by Auditor General Paul Martin and the three days of hearings already produced a lot of information.

The public accounts committee is made up of Progressive Conservative, Liberal and Green MLAs.

Chiasson said no one on the committee voted against the motion to call for an inquiry.

Last week health care leaders spent three days answering their questions about contracts with private travel-nurse companies that had cost taxpayers a total of $173 million as of February, according to Martin.

France Desrosiers
Vitalité CEO France Desrosiers told a legislative committee that travel-nurse contracts came from pressure from the Higgs government after the authority was given a mandate to fix the health-care system. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The CEO of the Vitalité Health Network Dr. France Desrosiers told the committee that  the deputy minister of the health department, Eric Beaulieu, gave her “the green light” — in those words — to sign contracts in the summer of 2022 potentially worth tens of millions of dollars.

But Beaulieu did not mention that himself during his appearance two days earlier.

“This is where we get into a debate of what was said, when it was said and who said it,” Fitch said Monday.

The minister would not say whether Beaulieu gave Desrosiers the green light in those words but said he “100 per cent” is with his deputy on the issue.

There were also contradictory statements about other options that Vitalité said it gave the province in the fall of 2022 that would have reduce the need for, and cost of, private travel nurses.

Premier Blaine Higgs said in a statement Friday that those options would have entailed “long-term, permanent changes to how nurses are compensated, which ultimately would have cost taxpayers significantly more.”

Desrosiers responded later in the day with a statement of her own that the proposed measures would not have been permanent and would have cost $25 million a year while they were in place.

That amount is well within the Higgs government’s recent budget surpluses.

Chiasson said that contradiction is an example of what could be cleared up by an inquiry. 

“There were a lot of questions that weren’t really satisfactorily answered. And members were just not satisfied that all of the information that was available was given to us and that we were given the full picture,” he said. 

He wouldn’t say whether his party, the Liberals, would commit to calling an inquiry if they win the provincial election scheduled for this fall.

“I can’t really speak to that. … We’re talking a hypothetical,” he said.

Shephard said last week an inquiry would allow for the questioning of the two appointed trustees who ran the Vitalité and Horizon health authorities from the summer of 2022 to the summer of 2023.

The CEO of Canadian Health Labs, the company with the lion’s share of the contracts, could also be questioned, she said. 

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