Whistleblower, NDP decry ‘sickening’ profits for health-care staffing agency

A former insider alleges a staffing agency charges clients three to four times what its nurses and PSWs take home

EDITOR’S NOTES: this article originally appeared on The Trilliuma new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

Ontario’s NDP is raising alarm about the high profits being made by a health-care staffing agency it says has recruited hundreds of Ontario nurses and personal support workers and sent them to work in Eastern Canada.

A former insider at a health-care staffing agency went to Ontario’s New Democrats, who brought their concerns to question this week.

“Fly-by-night staffing agencies are hurting our hospitals. They are hurting the patients in our hospitals. They exist for one reason: to make money for the investors. They take health-care workers from our public system and sell them back at huge profits,” said NDP health critic France Gélinas on Thursday. “How big, Speaker? A whistle-blower showed us: $154-million profit off the backs of 500 Ontario health-care workers. Let that sink in; this is sickening.”

Joel Harden, the NDP MPP for Ottawa Centre, said the company was recruiting “burned out nurses and PSWs” from Ontario’s health-care system and offering them “double the salaries they normally earn” to work for the company, Canadian Health Labs, which he said plans to recruit as many as 5,000 health-care workers.

That whistleblower, who used to work for Canadian Health Labs, also spoke with The Trillium.

They described a business model where the company recruits nurses and PSWs — about 70 per cent of them from Ontario — on a contract basis and sends them to work in health-care settings that pay a huge premium for their time.

The whistleblower said while the company had two contracts in Ontario, most of the health-care workers were sent outside of the province, including to Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick.

This person alleged that some personal support workers who were paid $35 an hour would be billed out to the health-care organizations that contract with the company for $166 per hour for their work, plus other charges for accommodations and meals. One contact with a regional health authority in Newfoundland and Labrador charged the government agency about $308 per hour per nurse while the nurses were paid, on average, $83 an hour, they alleged.

The whistleblower also alleged the company would pocket meal allowances meant for the health-care workers, unless those workers specifically negotiated with the company to have them included in their contract.

The Trillium could not independently verify the claims by the former employee but emailed them to Canadian Health Labs with questions about their accuracy. The company replied that it had no comment.

The whistleblower, who was let go by the company, said their motivation for speaking out was a moral problem with the company getting richer at the expense of the taxpayers. They’re also concerned for the health-care workers that work for the company as contractors and lack of job security and may not know they’ll have to pay tax on their take-home pay.

The issue of “travel nurses” has been controversial in the places where Canadian Health Labs has contracts, with the Newfoundland and Labrador health minister reportedly saying he “can’t wait to get rid of the contracts” in his province, but there aren’t t enough health-care workers available without them.

It’s not only a Newfoundland problem: a tight labor market and an aging population have caused health-care human resource shortages across the country. In Ontario, this meant the closure of emergency rooms and understaffing in long-term care.

Harden, the Ottawa MPP, blames the Ford government: staffing agencies are finding it easy to recruit in Ontario because the province has kept their wages low with its wage-cap legislation known as Bill 124.

“We know this particular firm has recruited as many as 500 nurses and PSWs, and these are people being taken out of our hospitals, out of our long-term care homes and elsewhere,” he said. “It’s making the staffing crisis worse.”

The opposition and others, including not-for-profit long-term care home operators, have called on the government to put guardrails on health-care staffing agencies that operate in Ontario but so far the government has declined, citing the need for agencies to fill shifts and the freedom for workers to work as they choose.

Health Minister Sylvia Jones made that argument when she addressed the NDP in question period.

“I just need some confirmation from the opposite member,” she said in response to Harden. “He is suggesting that registered nurses in the province of Ontario should not have a choice in where they work? Or in which areas they work?”

She went on to speak about her government’s efforts to expand the health-care workforce in Ontario, including by recruiting internationally educated practitioners and launching the Learn and Stay program.

Harden told The Trillium he was also concerned about the influence companies such as Canadian Health Labs have on the Ford government, noting that it retained former PC MPP Christina Mitas, who now works for Upstream Strategy Group, as a lobbyist. Harden also noted that of the firm’s principals is Michael Diamond, who managed Doug Ford’s 2018 leadership campaign, helped run the PCs’ last two election campaigns, and is currently president of the PC party.

Overall, Harden said he’d like to see the money that goes to corporate consultants and lobbyists go to “burned-out front-line workers who should be paid what they deserve.”

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