Staff crisis Northern Ireland trusts paying up to £100k a year for single agency nurse
Spending on agency nurses has been branded out of control after it emerged some companies were drawing £100,000-a-year fees for a single worker.
Certain agencies supplying staff to the Northern Trust are paid six-figure fees per nurse- a rate higher than some consultants in the area.
It is also up to four times the wages for a staff nurse within the trust, which covers the Antrim and Newtownabbey, Causeway Coast and Glens, Mid and East Antrim and Mid Ulster council locales.
The huge financial outlay came about because of a critical shortage of permanent staff, trust management said.
The shock figures emerged after Dr Tony Stevens, the head of the Northern Trust, met with SDLP MLAs Patsy McGlone and John Dallat.
The politicians said Dr Stevens had informed them that the fee for a band five agency nurse could be as much as £100,000.
A staff nurse at the same grade earns between £21,000 and £28,000 a year.
Dr Stevens also said that in some instances, agency nurses were costing more money than staff consultants, who are paid between £76,000 and £102,500 annually. Agency consultants can be paid up to £300,000 per annum.
A spokeswoman for the Northern Trust told this newspaper the situation was financially untenable and stressed that nursing agencies charged top rates for the services of professionals on their books.
"Agency nursing staff in general cost a premium above the payroll funding that the trust has available," the spokeswoman said.
"However, due to the national shortage of nurses, we have become reliant on agencies which are not in contract with the Health and Social Care Board, and these premiums are even higher.
"The issue for us is not what an individual nurse does or doesn't get paid working for an agency, but rather that having to use non-contract agency staff can cost the trust three to four times what it would cost for equivalent trust staff."
Mid-Ulster MLA Mr McGlone said the situation was out of control.
"Because of a lack of nurses we have a situation which seems to be privatisation through the back door," he added.
"The unregulated pay spiral is out of control and leading to this crazy situation.
"We need to stop this by training nurses and medical staff, and paying them properly to reflect the important role that they play."
Unison official Brian Ferguson said the union had repeatedly raised the issue with health trusts and with the Department of Health.
"Paying these amounts, whilst staff nurses continue to be under a pay cap, only adds to the spiral of low morale and deepens the workforce crisis within the health service," Mr Ferguson added.
The union official also stressed that making £13million in cuts to the Northern Trust budget - the share demanded of that area as part of the overall £70 million in cuts needed from all five trusts - would only exacerbate the situation.
Mr Ferguson continued: "This will lead to longer waiting lists and the closure of beds, and will only put remaining staff under even more pressure.
"The Northern Trust needs to deal with the major overspend on agency nursing.
"As we have been urging, this needs to be done in a comprehensive and structured manner so the public doesn't suffer from the failure to recruit permanent staff and from a lack of planning.
"Recruiting staff into the public sector, proper workforce planning across the system and dealing with the low levels of pay for staff nurses are the kinds of solutions that we need to see to deal with this problem.
"This must be the priority, not quick and deep cuts that will hurt the most vulnerable and put hard-working staff under even more pressure."
The upper wage limit for a band five staff nurse