Health trust billed almost £7m in a year for agency nurses
AGENCY nurses cost a cash-strapped health trust almost £7 million in a year as it struggled to tackle staff shortages, the Irish News has learned.
The Northern health trust last night confirmed it received a £6.81m bill from private recruitment firms for 2016/17 - with companies taking a significant cut of salaries paid to temporary staff on their books.
The figures come just days after the chief executive of the Northern trust, Dr Tony Stevens, admitted they were shelling out £100,000 a year to cover a 'locum' nurse.
There has severe criticism of health trusts' increasing reliance on agency staff, with trade unions linking the crisis to poor workforce planning and 'cost-saving' measures such as vacancy freezes.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said it was not aware of any one nurse receiving an individual salary of £100k and that nursing agency costs were significantly lower than those for temporary doctors.
A Northern Trust spokeswoman also confirmed that between April and August this year, it paid a further £3.8m for stand-in nurses.
Agency doctors, including those at consultant level, cost the trust £12.2m last year, she added.
Dr Stevens revealed the rocketing £100,000 per nurse spend in a meeting with SDLP politicians Patsy McGlone and John Dallat.
Speaking to the Press Association, Mr McGlone described the pay spiral as "going out of control".
The emergence of the figures coincides with a consultation ending on £70 million in proposed cuts across being ordered by the Department of Health across the five heath trusts - of which the Northern Trust must slash £13m from its budget.
A big reduction in locum spending across the health service is one of the main proposals on the table by trusts.
In its response to the consultation, the RCN castigated the so-called savings plans which they say have had a devastating effect on service and staff morale.
"Short-sighted cost-saving measures have resulted in an escalating level of nursing vacancies, increasing risk brought about by staff shortages, care left undone, nurses working an increasing number of unpaid hours, spiralling work-related sickness absence levels, and soaring bank and agency costs," the official response states.
Sinn Féin's spokesman on health, Pat Sheehan, said the cuts will target the most vulerable.
"The consultation process itself was also deeply flawed, given that it was not compatible with the Trusts' own equality schemes and statutory obligations," he said.