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The Manitoba government is examining a health care contract with a Toronto-based staffing agency after the company failed to sign a single doctor in the first eight months of an agreement to bring up to 150 family physicians to the province.

Manitoba Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara said their government is reviewing a two-year contract awarded last July to Canadian Health Labs (CHL), a company that was the subject of a recent Globe investigation into its business practices in Atlantic Canada, and which has scant experience recruiting permanent doctors.

“We’re thoroughly evaluating the concerns that have been raised about this company,” the minister said in an interview. “We’re thoroughly evaluating the contract, and we’re thoroughly evaluating what the best approach will be moving forward in order to recruit physicians to Manitoba.”

Minister Asagwara, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, would not elaborate on what action the government might take as a result of the review. But they noted the contract signed by the previous government is structured in such a way that CHL is not paid unless it convinces family doctors to practise in the Prairie province.

Attracting physicians is a high-stakes endeavour for Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew, who promised during his election campaign last fall to bring 400 new doctors to the province in four years. Minister Asagwara said the government is not leaving the pursuit of doctors solely to CHL, the only external company in the province with a government contract to recruit physicians.

“I would have hoped that a contract like this would have produced results and would have successfully recruited physicians to Manitobans by this time,” they said. “I’m also actively working with experts and with stakeholders across the province to do the work of recruiting physicians to Manitoba via other pathways.”

New Brunswick officials paid nursing firm for meal allowances workers never received

Manitoba’s contract with CHL, an unredacted copy of which was obtained by The Globe, stipulates that CHL will be paid between $25,000 and $45,000 for each family doctor it signs, depending on where the doctors commit to practise. The company is supposed to recruit 50 family physicians to Northern Manitoba, 50 to rural areas and 50 to Winnipeg, with a preference for doctors from Canada over those from overseas.

The contract estimates it will take between 12 and 18 months to recruit 150 GPs, meaning CHL still has time to complete the work.

The agreement is worth a maximum of $5.25-million, according to Shared Health Manitoba, the authority that signed the deal. Funding of $3.75-million was earmarked for the 2023-24 fiscal year, the contract says. That fiscal year ends in less than a week.

In an unsigned statement sent to The Globe, CHL said Shared Health chose the company after a competitive process, “in recognition of CHL’s proven track record of helping Canadians access quality health care by solving staffing shortages.

“Since the contract was awarded, a significant amount of work has been done by CHL to recruit family physicians, the vast majority of which are international candidates. CHL continues to work closely with Shared Health to recruit family physicians to fill vacancies across Manitoba, including in rural, remote and underserviced communities affected by the current health care crisis.”

Canadian Health Labs was founded in 2020 by Bill Hennessey, an entrepreneur who owned an industrial cleaning products business before pivoting to COVID-19 testing and vaccination services, as well as to providing travel nurses to staff-starved rural hospitals.

The Globe reported last month that CHL charged the equivalent of more than $300 an hour for each nurse to some health authorities in Newfoundland and Labrador and in New Brunswick, more than twice what other for-profit agencies charged, and about six times what unionized staff nurses earn in those provinces.

CHL also invoiced health authorities in the two Atlantic provinces for daily meal allowances for the company’s nurses, despite telling nurses they had to pay for their own food.

The Comptroller-General in Newfoundland is now reviewing the CHL contracts, while New Brunswick’s Auditor-General has opened an investigation into all travel nursing contracts.

In Manitoba, then-premier Heather Stefanson’s government tried to tackle the province’s primary-care shortage by issuing a request for proposals for physician recruitment on April 14 of last year.

Minister Asagwara said approximately a dozen vendors competed for the contract. CHL submitted a proposal in May. The contract was signed in late July.

Like many parts of Canada, Manitoba has struggled to find enough family doctors to provide primary care to a growing and aging population. It has the fewest family physicians per capita of any province, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

“The family physician shortage in Manitoba is critical, and the shortage is a top concern for both physicians and patients,” said Michael Boroditsky, president of Doctors Manitoba, the main physicians’ association in the province.

“Based on estimates from several sources, there are 150,000 to 200,000 Manitobans without a family doctor,” he said. “Many more can’t get in to see their family doctor as quick as they need because family physicians are stretched due to the shortage and excessive administrative burdens.”

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