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Newfoundland and Labrador’s Official Opposition is calling on the RCMP to step in after a Globe and Mail probe of the private nursing industry found that one company charged health authorities in the province $1.6-million for meal allowances while telling personnel they had to pay for their own food.

Progressive Conservative Leader Tony Wakeham said he urged the RCMP in a letter Thursday to examine the Newfoundland government’s dealings with Canadian Health Labs, a Toronto-based agency that received tens of millions of dollars in contracts with regional authorities in Newfoundland and New Brunswick.

Mr. Wakeham, who has also called on the province’s Auditor-General to investigate, said police were best placed to get to the bottom of what happened to money earmarked for nurses’ meals.

“The government, were they fraudulently billed? I don’t know. Was it a mistake? I don’t know,” Mr. Wakeham said in an interview Thursday. “But it clearly speaks of a bigger issue and the need, perhaps, to have the RCMP look into this.”

The Globe contacted CHL’s lawyer, William McDowell, for comment about the call for RCMP involvement. The agency replied with a statement that did not directly address that point but noted that it has 65 workers currently deployed in the province “ensuring that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians receive high-quality health care they would not otherwise be able to access.”

CHL’s contracts and invoices, obtained through freedom of information requests, reveal that the company was charging health authorities in one part of Newfoundland hourly rates that The Globe calculated to be as high as $312.25 for specialty nurses. That’s more than double what competing agencies billed and six times what a unionized registered nurse earns in the Atlantic provinces.

CHL nurses who spoke to The Globe said they were paid between $85 and $100 an hour. The Globe is not identifying them because they signed non-disclosure agreements.

The health authorities’ contracts with CHL initially stipulated that the agency’s nurses were to receive a per diem of $50.20 for three meals a day, which was indexed last summer to $60.24. Invoices show CHL billed Newfoundland for more than 87,000 meals totalling nearly $1.6-million.

But in its recruitment advertisements, CHL said food was not included. The company’s contracts with nurses, copies of which The Globe obtained, made it clear that they would receive no financial reimbursement for meals or groceries. Twenty-seven CHL nurses contacted by The Globe said they did not receive per diems.

Newfoundland seeks answers after ‘shocking’ spending on temporary nurses

CHL has not answered The Globe’s questions about these discrepancies. In an earlier statement, which the company reiterated to The Globe on Thursday, CHL said its rates were “fair and transparent.” The statement said CHL’s prices “reflect the extraordinary logistical challenges of getting and keeping health care professionals in rural, remote and underserved communities.”

Newfoundland Health Minister Tom Osborne noted again Thursday that he has asked Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services to examine what happened to the meal allowance payments. The original CHL contracts were signed in 2022 by executives at regional health bodies that have since been folded into NLHS.

Mr. Osborne questioned whether there was any proof that would necessitate bringing in the RCMP.

“If the contracts were followed, and due diligence was followed, the news is how expensive agency nursing is. And that’s not a surprise,” he said.

Newfoundland and Labrador spent $35.6-million on travel nurses from April to August of last year, up from around $1-million annually before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to NLHS.

Public spending on temporary nurses has soared across Canada since the start of the pandemic. Poor working conditions drove many nurses to cut back their hours or leave the public system, prompting health authorities to turn to private nursing agencies such as CHL to help them stave off closings and service cuts.

CHL also has three contracts to supply health care workers to Vitalité Health Network. One of New Brunswick’s two health authorities, Vitalité administers the province’s French-language public medical services.

The Vitalité contracts require local health officials to pay CHL daily meal allowances of $46 per day per worker.

Unlike its counterparts in Newfoundland, Vitalité, has declined to release the invoices it received from CHL, so the total amount of per diems that it was charged is not public.

The Globe asked Vitalité whether it was verifying if per diems had been distributed to CHL nurses and personal support workers working in New Brunswick. The health authority replied in a written statement that “it’s up to Canadian Health Labs to respect its obligations towards its employees.”

In a separate statement, Vitalité's chief executive acknowledged that the contracts’ costs are contentious. “We believe that the billing level for these services deserves questioning,” France Desrosiers said in a statement sent to The Globe on Thursday.

“These costs represent a significant financial burden for our citizens. They also create inequality between Network health care workers and agency staff.”

Dr. Desrosiers’s statement represented the first time a Vitalité official commented to The Globe about CHL’s pricing. The health authority previously told The Globe that it was unable to answer questions about the details of the contracts it had signed with staffing agencies.

CHL did not respond to a request to address Ms. Desrosiers’s remarks.

Meanwhile, two union leaders sent a letter urging Newfoundland Auditor-General Denise Hanrahan to investigate the use of agency nursing.

“There is a lack of transparency and accountability when it comes to the practices of these agencies,” said the letter co-signed by Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, and by her Newfoundland counterpart, Yvette Coffey.

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