Tory MLA Ross Wetmore said travel nurse contracts signed by New Brunswick’s Department of Social Development in early 2022 opened the door to a series of lucrative deals signed later that year by Vitalité.

“There’s no doubt about it, that laid the groundwork and certainly probably had a lot to do with the other contracts that were signed,” Wetmore told reporters Wednesday.

Social Development spent about $3 million on travel nurse contracts, the majority of which went to Canadian Health Labs, which would later receive at least $93 million from Vitalité after contracts were signed later in 2022. A recent auditor general report found that Social Development signed the contract after it was written by CHL, did not receive legal review by provincial lawyers and only provided services in a team-based model, meaning the province paid a flat rate even if some services weren’t required.

“This is like snowball,” Wetmore said. “It started in Social Development and has bloomed into $173 million.”

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The public accounts committee is hearing from decision makers about the contracts in a series of hearings this week. On Wednesday, social development deputy minister Jim Mehan defended the use of the contracts, which weren’t tendered, but admitted that mistakes around invoice and criminal record verification were made.

Mehan says the deals with Plan A and CHL were signed because of the companies’ ability to deploy the necessary resources quickly.

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“Going slower meant at minimum added disruption and stress for residents and staff and at worst, elevated risk of avoidable death for lack of nursing home carers,” he said.

“So we did what we had to do.”

But Wetmore said he believes the province was taken advantage of by CHL and questioned why the team-based model was agreed to. CHL teams cost $9,995 per day and included a logistics manager, five personal support workers, a registered nurse and a licensed practical nurse. It also included a virtual team comprising a scheduler, a clinical lead and a team lead.

Mehan said the province didn’t require the use of any of the virtual staff and sometimes not all of the clinical staff. But Green health critic Megan Mitton said she was frustrated that she couldn’t get answers with exact figures of what the province paid for that it didn’t use.

“We don’t have a lot of complete answers to a lot of our questions so far,” she said.

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Mehan admitted that the province did try to negotiate individual services with CHL, but was told that only the team model was available. That model would also be used in later contracts signed with Vitalité.

Wetmore said the province didn’t negotiate hard enough.

“I’ve had contracts with the federal government and provincial government and never once have I gone into either of those governments and said, ‘Listen, you don’t want widgets, but you’re going to get widgets whether you want them or not,’” he said.

“I think we could have negotiated a lot harder.”

The decision to use the agency nurses and sign the contract was made by the civil service, the committee also heard. It was then-deputy minister Eric Beaulieu, who now serves as the deputy minister of health, and an assistant deputy minister who signed the contracts.

The contracts did not have to go to approval and the only ministerial oversight came in the form of granting an exemption to the normal tendering process. Since the contracts were worth more than a million dollars, Service NB Minister Mary Wilson signed off on the exemption, but it’s not clear how much information she was given about the nature of the contracts.

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However, Wetmore, who had served in cabinet as the agriculture minister prior to the 2020 election, said red flags should have been raised at that point.

“When funding came across my desk, I asked questions,” he said.

“I very seldom signed off on anything and if something was a million dollars and I was asked for a minister’s exemption, I asked questions.”

Canadian Health Labs did not respond to an interview request. The hearings will continue on Thursday when leadership from Vitalité will appear to speak about their contracts.

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