Higgs doubles down, blames poor Vitalité management for costly travel nurse contracts

Premier Blaine Higgs is disputing claims by the CEO of Vitalité Health Network that costly travel nurse contracts were the result of a refusal by his government to approve other, less expensive options to deal with the staffing crisis in 2022.

Dr. France Desrosiers told a legislative committee Thursday that the $123 million in contracts were awarded due to pressure from the Higgs government to fix the health-care system quickly — and after nine other proposals, such as retention bonuses and premiums for working in short-staffed units, were rejected.

In a written statement issued Friday afternoon, Higgs said, it's "inaccurate" to say Vitalité's recommendations were less expensive or would have resolved issues more quickly.

"Vitalité was proposing long-term, permanent changes to how nurses are compensated, which ultimately would have cost taxpayers significantly more," he argued.

The options presented by Vitalité could not be unilaterally implemented by the government either, said Higgs. Any changes to compensation for nurses, such as pay and vacation days, must be negotiated with the New Brunswick Nurses Union. "As everyone knows, union negotiations take time."

While Higgs acknowledged there was an urgency to fill vacancies during the COVID-19 pandemic, "there was absolutely no direction by our government or by public servants for the CEO to sign long-term contracts," he said, noting the current contract doesn't expire until 2026, and it is set to automatically renew, without any end date.

"The CEO is seeking to blame non-partisan public servants for poor management decisions that she made," Higgs alleged.

"The real issue is that a very poor contract was signed," he said. "We continue to call on the board of Vitalité to find a legal way to end this contract."

CEO opts to 'take the high road'

In response, Desrosiers issued her own statement Friday, saying it's "very unfortunate that we are at this stage.

"To bring further transparency, the measures proposed were not intended to be permanent and amounted to $25M for the Network for each year they would be in place," she said.

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.
Vitalité CEO France Desrosiers contends the other measures proposed would have cost about $25 million per year. Vitalité spent $123 million on travel nurses between June 2022 and February 2024, the auditor general found. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"As for the approvals and the perspective on leadership, the Network will opt to take the high road and focus its efforts on providing care to its patients and communities."

'Enough is enough,' says Opposition

Meanwhile, the Opposition called Friday for a public inquiry into the "mismanagement that led to the signing of these private travel nurse contracts and the premier's involvement in it."

Liberal Leader Susan Holt noted most of the other options presented by Vitalité involved efforts to retain health-care workers.

Higgs has had time and opportunity to fix the health-care crisis, she said in a statement. "And what is there to show for it? $174 million for travel nurses, corporate profits and unprecedented disrespect for New Brunswick nurses."

Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard said 'Policy 713 creates an opportunity for educators to have safe space, to have respectful and welcoming educational environments.'
Former health minister Dorothy Shephard said Tuesday the process failed not only with Vitalité, but 'over three separate entities,' referring to Horizon and Social Development, 'and that's cause for a little bit of concern, I think, and maybe even more investigation.' (Michel Corriveau/Radio-Canada)

Her comments come on the heels of a former provincial health minister in the Progressive Conservative government saying key failures at the heart of the travel nurse contracts may need "more investigation."

On Tuesday, Saint John Lancaster MLA Dorothy Shephard, who is not seeking re-election, told the public accounts committee she was struck by how many invoices were paid to private travel-nurse companies without proper documentation of services being delivered.

"Process is what protects everybody," she said, but the "process failed."

Auditor general slams 'lack of accountability'

Auditor General Paul Martin also took issue Friday with comments made by Vitalité leadership during their public accounts committee appearance, following his scathing report earlier this month about travel nurse contracts and what he concluded was a lack of due diligence.

"To publicly call into question the work of the Office of the Auditor General adds to our concern regarding the lack of ownership and accountability displayed by Vitalité," Martin said in a statement.

"We encourage government to hold Vitalité accountable and trust our recommendations will be taken seriously and implemented in a timely fashion."

New Brunswick Auditor General Paul Martin said last year he was told by government officials a request for proposals would be issued to choose a company to administer public service health plans.  Instead a contract was signed without a competition being held.
Auditor General Paul Martin, who investigated the travel nurse contracts, urged the government Friday to hold Vitalité accountable. (Jacques Poitras / CBC)

Martin found Vitalité's contracts with private nursing agencies, were "not reflective of best practices and did not demonstrate value for money."

What is "quite scary," he told MLAs, is that the current contract with Canadian Health Labs allows the company to deploy nurses "regardless of the actual need" and still be paid up to $85 million during the life of the agreement.

"As the independent arm of government charged with providing assurance and advice regarding the stewardship of public funds, we follow professional audit and quality assurance standards and ensure that appropriate evidence is obtained to support our findings and recommendations," Martin said Friday.

"Our team of experienced audit professionals performed extensive testing, analysis and review that led to reporting on Vitalité's failure to ensure appropriate contract management and oversight."