€40m spent on agency nurses last year, €30m so far this year

The Comptroller and Auditor General's report, released on 15 September, devoted over a hundred pages to scrutinising how specific monies have been spent on health. In particular, it highlighted €44 million the HSE spent on agency staff in 2009. By Sara Burke.

Figures obtained by me today show that so far this year just another €30 million has been spent on nursing agency staff. Clearly this is not the best use of public money.

Agency staff are staff hired through an employment agency, not directly by the HSE or hospitals, maybe to fill in for a shift or more likely to cover a vacant post which the HSE cannot replace due to the current public sector moratorium on recruitment in place since March 2009. Remember that in the HSE there has also been a staffing embargo in place since September 2007 which has really hit nursing numbers hard.

 There are now over 1,500 fewer nursing staff than there were at the end of 2007 – 39,000 down to 37,500.  Under the embargo and moratorium, nursing staff cannot be replaced unless a business case is made, but if they absolutely need staff to cover a ward or service the HSE get around this by using agency staff.

The C&AG John Buckley (pictured) cites the HSE's own internal audit which shows that agency staff exceed the cost of employing nursing staff by 36.5% and he clearly implies that this is not the most efficient use of tight resources. Yet internal HSE figures for 2010 show that up to July of this year just under €30 million has been spent on agency nursing and €37 million on other agency staff; doctors, allied health professionals etc.

This practice continues because if health managers want to keep services open they have no other choice in order to keep services safe, but it clearly highlights the blunt instrument that the moratorium is and the constraints it is putting on the health service. It impacts on the quality of nursing care but we are also seeing its impact on closed wards and reduced services.

The C&AG cites two examples from St James's and Beaumont where nurse banks have been set up. A nurse not working in the hospitals can register with a nurse bank or someone in the hospital who is happy to work extra hours or overtime. They are paid the hourly rate and only get overtime if they work more than 37 hours.

Both St James's and Beaumont found it very successful and made savings of 16/17% by not hiring agency staff. The C&AG says there is no HSE plan to put them in place nationally but suggests it might be possible, he also suggests it could be done in primary care.

The Croke Park agreement could have an impact on the tens of millions spent on agency nursing as it proactively facilitates redeployment and also newer innovative practice such as the nursing banks.

However, the moratorium issue remains and this month many of the newly qualified nurses trained to a world class level in Ireland are leaving in their droves as there are no new posts in the system even though we spent €90,00 educating each of them. And part of the Croke Park agreement is taking another 6,000 out of the health workforce – where will they come from?