Private Staffing Agencies Profiting from British Columbia’s Public Healthcare Crisis

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British Columbia’s public health-care system may be significantly benefiting private staffing agencies, as revealed by documents after a lengthy seven-month quest for information. These records illustrate a marked increase in profits due to substantial markups for the health-care professionals they supply, including nurses, X-ray technologists, and occupational therapists, all critical in supporting a struggling public health system.

Inside sources estimate that between 25% and almost all of the staff in hospital operating rooms or care home wards are short-term contract workers, many of whom have left the stability of the public system and union pensions for higher hourly wages and flexibility of choice in work arrangements.

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This situation presents itself starkly in the case of a registered nurse with a decade of experience in the public system who can expect to receive an approximate base hourly wage of $45. In contrast, a private staffing agency recently announced a one-week requirement for a surgical nurse in the Lower Mainland area at an hourly rate of $52.50. This rate, significantly higher than standard pay, includes additional incentive bonuses and unlisted benefits. However, these staffing agencies charge a significant fee to the health authorities- as much as $75.62 for each hour a nurse works along with any travel costs incurred for distances beyond 50 kilometres from their residence.

The prevailing practice among the private staffing agencies has been a constant and consistent markup across all professions, with a modest credit of one per cent returned per each $500,000 spent. Change appears negligible, as all contracts from last year bear striking resemblance, with the notable exceptions of those from two companies—ProMed HR Solutions.

Prior to the pandemic, these travelling nurses mainly aided rural healthcare facilities, providing temporary replacements during instances of vacations, medical leaves, or parental leaves. However, the pandemic has amplified the prevailing staff crisis, necessitating increased dependence on temporary hires, including special health-care workers such as pharmacy technicians and technologists.

Andrew Longhurst, a health policy expert at Simon Fraser University, aptly depicted this is as a “parasitic industry”. He further elaborated that if the math is done, the stark reality of an approximate 30-35% profit margin, particularly in an industry devoid of significant overhead, becomes evident.

The health authorities oblige agencies to provide insurance for their workers and signature on a standard confidentiality agreement. They also require that contracts cannot be assigned to another company and do not guarantee a minimum service supply.

Justifications for resorting to these agency staff have varied, stating that these were the driving workforce behind vaccinations, testing, and contact tracing during the pandemic. While portrayed as a “last resort”, used only when vacant shifts threatened patient safety or risked facility closure, there has been a subsequent seven-fold increase in payments to agencies as dependence on them soared—despite public COVID-19 testing ceasing in December 2021.

Adriane Gear, BC Nurses’ Union President, sees this as the beginning of healthcare privatization and deemed it as poor management of taxpayer monies. Gear suggested the increased payouts be redirected to improve recruitment and retention strategies for health authority nurses. She warned against an unsustainable system and unstable work environment, emphasizing that taxpayer dollars should be spent more wisely in maintaining the health-care system.