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Ontario spending on private nursing agencies has more than quadrupled since pandemic began

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The use of private nursing agencies to fill staffing gaps in Ontario hospitals has more than quadrupled since the pandemic began.

The figures are laid out in an arbitration decision for hospital nurses represented by the Ontario Nurses' Association released last week.

Chair William Kaplan says that in 2020-21, hospitals reported spending $38,350,956 on agency nurses. By 2022-23 that cost had exploded to $173,669,808.

"The vast expansion of overtime and agency nurse usage – demonstrated by a truly astonishing growth in both – establishes a true recruitment and retention problem," Kaplan writes of the extra hours in his July 20 decision.

He explains that hospitals are paying agency nurses double or triple rates for contract nurses because it's the only way for hospitals to meet their staffing needs with compensation "a, if, not the, key driver in attracting employees."

A spokesperson for Health Minister Sylvia Jones insists the hours worked by agency nurses are dropping and represent less than two percent of all hours work in Ontario hospitals.

Jones described nursing agencies as a tool to help hospitals when plans change.

It just speaks to the fact that when we have hospitals partners who are able to react and respond to increase community needs, they have the ability to do that," Jones told reporters in Kitchener Monday.

Kaplan's arbitration decision awarded ONA members an 11 percent wage increase spread over two years.

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