Private Agencies Profit Heavily from British Columbia’s Public Health System

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Private staffing agencies are set to make substantial profits from British Columbia’s public health-care system, as borne out by confidential documents obtained after a lengthy pursuit for public disclosure. These documents reveal that agreements between health authorities and 16 privately owned companies unfold a picture of steep markups for the provision of healthcare staff, from nurses to X-ray technologists to occupational therapists. Notably, these professionals are the ones currently supporting a struggling public system, with some hospitals and care homes relying heavily on the short-term contracts of these workers.

Many professionals have distanced themselves from the public domain and union pensions to capitalize on higher hourly rates while enjoying job flexibility. In this system, the staffing agency employs them as temporary workers, helping the agency accrue a significant portion of the compensation.

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For instance, a unionized health authority worker with a registered nurse designation in their initial decade of service earns close to $45 as the base hourly wage. A recent job posting from a leading staffing agency offered a considerable $52.50 per hour for a surgical nurse, along with bonus incentives and unspecified benefits.

According to the majority of these contracts, these agencies can charge the health authorities $75.62 per hour per nurse’s service, inclusive of travel expenses for those working at locations more than 50 kilometers from their place of residence. Interestingly, these agencies offer a one percent credit for each $500,000 spent, a feature that remains consistent across all professions.

These contracts, although renegotiated in the previous year, include an exception for two agencies. ProMed HR Solutions’ contract does not disclose its rates, and Ontario-based Calian Ltd’s contract underwent radical changes. Until last year, they charged a sizable $115 per hour for registered nurses provided to Interior Health.

The increased reliance on temporary contracts, mainly due to the staffing crunch exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, strains budget allocations. Historically, traveling nurses filled positions in remote communities, offering support during vacation, medical absences, and parental leaves. However, the recent upsurge in demand engulfs other allied health-care professionals like pharmacy technicians.

Health policy researcher at Simon Fraser University, Andrew Longhurst, regards this as a parasitic industry, considering the 30 to 35 percent profit margin. These profits, he says, are uncharacteristic of industries with little overhead.

These contracts obligate the staffing agencies to insure their workers, but they must also bind themselves into a confidentiality agreement. The agencies cannot transfer the agreement to another organization, and the contracts do not guarantee minimum service supply.

Despite concerns, health ministers have defended the use of agency workers in various circumstances. The minister claims that agency workers were the driving force behind vaccinations, testing, and contact tracing during the pandemic and were only resorted to when patient safety and operational needs demanded immediate staff reinforcements.

Since the pandemic, British Columbia has seen payouts to agencies increase seven-fold considering the reliance on them has surged. This trend continues even though public COVID-19 testing collapsed in December 2021, with many vaccinations now administered in pharmacies.

Adriane Gear, BC Nurses’ Union president, believes that nursing service privatization heralds an unwelcome chapter in healthcare. She urges for better recruitment and retention strategies for health authority nurses using taxpayer dollars, as hefty payments to private staffing agencies are destabilizing the system and negatively impacting public health care.