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COVID-19 pandemic upped Yukon’s dependency on private agency nurses

Hospitals spent $8.2 million and Yukon government spent $1.42 million on agency nurses in 2022-23
Yukon Federation of Labour president Teresa Acheson attends the Fireweed Community Market in Whitehorse on June 22 to promote a northern health campaign. In an interview, she drew attention to the cost and impact of relying on private agency nurses to fill gaps in the public health-care system. (Dana Hatherly/Yukon News)

The Yukon has generally become more dependent on nurses from private firms over the years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data obtained by the News.

Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee told the legislature April 27 that the Yukon is paying three times more for agency nurses than what an employed permanent person in that position might make, not including benefits.

McPhee previously told reporters agency nursing is on the rise to fill the gaps.

In a June 7 email, communications manager Claire Robson broke down the health department’s spending to cover community health centres with agency nurses over the years: $15,000 in 2014-15, $239,000 in 2016-17, nothing in 2018-19, $1.65 million in 2020-21, $977,214 in 2021-22, $1.42 million in 2022-23 and $91,000 to date in 2023-24.

“The COVID-19 pandemic caused a local, national and global shortage of health-care providers, and upholding access to health care for Yukoners during this time was a priority,” Robson said.

Agency nurses were used to fill vacancies in rural Yukon while the department recruited staff in 2016 to 2017, Robson said. In 2018 to 2019, there was no need for agency nurses given vacancy rates got better. During the COVID-19 pandemic years from 2020 to 2023, there was a greater demand for agency nurses to fill roles within the COVID-19 testing centre, mass vaccine clinics and Yukon Communicable Disease Control.

Per the email, four agencies are used by the department: Bayshore Healthcare, Calian, Select Medical Connections and Venture Health Care.

On the final day of the spring sitting of the Yukon Legislative Assembly, McPhee said that as of March 20, community nursing has a vacancy rate of 36.5 per cent for primary health-care nurses, which represents a 4.5 per cent improvement from the fall. In December 2022, the Yukon government announced a new $6-million package of retention and signing bonuses for nurses employed by the government.

The Yukon Hospital Corporation uses agency nurses to fill nursing shifts in the hospital system, according to Jessica Apolloni, the hospital corporation’s communications manager.

“It’s not ideal,” Apolloni said.

“But it’s allowed us to keep like our hospital staff and provide the quality health services.”

A typical day at the Whitehorse General Hospital has 44 nursing shifts, Apolloni explained. In 2022, agency nurses made up about 20 per cent of nursing shifts at the Whitehorse hospital. That number excludes surgical services because the data was not available by press time.

In the 2022-23 fiscal year, the corporation spent $8.2 million on agency nurses, which includes travel costs, for the entire corporation, Apolloni said. The corporation has spent $1.6 million up until the end of May for the 2023-24 fiscal year.

Apolloni said relying on agency nurses is part of a national strategy for navigating a shortage of health-care workers.

“One way that we’re addressing the staffing issues is through health human resources strategy, which is co-led with the Department of Health and Social Services.”

The strategy is expected to be done in fall 2023.

The Yukon Federation of Labour is running a northern health campaign that draws attention to the North’s dependence on agency nurses. In a June 19 interview by phone, president Teresa Acheson discussed the issues she has noticed.

“It’s more expensive,” she said.

“Contracting out is adding to our health-care costs and taking our health-care dollars out of the territory.”

Acheson said the practice has created a divide among health-care workers that could harm the territory’s ability to retain staff, as well as a higher risk of temporary health-care workers being treated badly because they won’t have the right to union representation.

“It’s sort of a band-aid solution,” she said.

“It locks our human resources into a cycle of chasing temporary workers, rather than finding long-term solutions.”

Acheson said the impacts can be seen in isolated communities and for Indigenous people who find themselves re-explaining chronic conditions and health issues to new faces in the health-care system.

“They have to repeat how they’ve been affected by residential schools or other injustices or discrimination, and what happens is survivors and families of those survivors experience another layer of trauma each time that a new health-care professional comes to town,” she said.

“This is even more exaggerated when it’s someone that has no intention of living in the community.”

Contact Dana Hatherly at

Dana Hatherly

About the Author: Dana Hatherly

I’m the legislative reporter for the Yukon News.
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