Manitoba spent more than $40M with private nursing agencies last year

The cost of using travel and agency nurses in Manitoba has soared by tens of millions of dollars over the last few years. As Global's Brittany Greenslade reports, some nurses are leaving the public field altogether.

The Manitoba government is paying to deal with on-going nursing shortages around the province by hiring nurses from private agencies and it’s costing tens of millions of dollars a year.

While the use of private agencies is not new and is helping fill ongoing staffing issues, it comes at a huge cost.

Manitoba spent more than $14 million on agency nurses in 2017/2018 but that number ballooned to more than $40 million in 2021/2022, according to data obtained by Global News through Shared Health.

“Staffing challenges have resulted in an increased reliance on agency nursing – from two per cent of overall nursing staff costs province-wide in 2015/16 to over four per cent for 2021/22, according to Shared Health,” a Shared Health spokesperson said via email.

READ MORE: Manitoba Nurses Union sounds alarm over nursing position shortage

The Manitoba Nurses Union said it has seen many nurses choose to leave the public system and work entirely through agencies.

“That is a trend that we’ve seen increasing over the past three years,” MNU president Darlene Jackson said.

“It’s an incredible cost to the employers. It’s an incredible cost to this government.

“Can you imagine how great our public health care system would be if that (money) had been poured into our public health-care system?”

Jackson added that many nurses are choosing to work part-time in hospitals and other health-care facilities and are supplementing their income through higher paid agency work.

“That keeps their benefits, and (they) then work the bulk of their shifts with an agency. So many, many nurses have chosen that route,” Jackson said.

Region 2017/18 2018/19 2019/20 2020/21 2021/22 2022/23 1Q
IERHA $3,832,537 $3,596,889 $4,505,321 $6,702,147 $7,745,272 $2,454,463
Northern $2,203,645 $3,674,813 $4,014,035 $6,504,036 $10,350,959 $2,039,123
PMH $5,144,634 $7,126,420 $8,592,590 $8,260,409 $12,182,297 $4,241,741
Shared Health $0 $60,828 $8,571 $0
Southern $1,601,470 $1,682,547 $2,679,727 $2,293,853 $6,441,555 $1,514,975
WRHA $1,770,437 $1,820,551 $5,305,171 $3,224,804 $4,198,282 $672,107

Registered nurses Monique Champoux and Carolyn Harnum started Unity Healthcare Solutions Inc. four years ago but said the nursing shortage has been decades in the making.

“We’ve seen it coming. We’re in it. We’re in the midst of it. COVID accelerated, if you will, this whole demand,” Champoux said.

Their company works with around 300 nurses and health-care aides who are employed as private contractors and yet they can’t keep up with the daily demand at their agency.

“I can honestly say we probably get a thousand, if not more, emails a day,” Harnum said.

READ MORE: Nursing shortage leads to ‘open to emergencies only’ policy in northern Manitoba

Harnum said many nurses are leaving the public sector because they want the flexibility and better work-life balance.

“People are burnt out,” she said. “People are being mandated to work. You know, they can’t go home and they’re supposed to go home.”

Health Minister Audrey Gordon said using agency nurses to fill a void is not unique to Manitoba but the province would like to see the amount of funding spent that way decrease.

“We want to see that number come down in terms of the funds that are being used,” she said. “And we want to see the numbers grow in terms of the nurses that are in our public system.

Gordon said the government is working on a number of initiatives to try to keep qualified nurses in the public health sector.

“We’re offering different types of training within the health system for intensive care units and more, and offering other incentives, establishing a provincial float pool, looking at self-scheduling,” Gordon said Wednesday.

She also said they want to work with the union and nurses to find solutions to make the sector more attractive to help with retention.

“We want to make the public system very attractive for them but we need to listen to them about what we need to do in terms of changes to make that happen,” she said.

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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