Hospitals across Yorkshire are facing soaring costs for temporary doctors and nurses as health chiefs battle to plug shortages of key staff.
Latest figures reveal costs in the region’s hospitals for locum doctors and bank and agency nurses are nearly 25 per cent up on 2013 amid warnings they are playing a key part in the deepening NHS financial crisis.
Costs of bank and agency nursing at Rotherham’s hospital have nearly doubled since April to £3.4m compared to the same period last year and are now six times the level expected.
At hospitals in Leeds, bills for temporary nurses are up 87 per cent to £9.4m, while one 24-hour shift for a specialist consultant cost taxpayers £2,600.
Spending on agency staff at York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust is said to be running at an “unaffordable premium level” predicted to hit £9m in 2014-15, triggering warnings it is placing significant pressure on its finances.
The costs of temporary staff and difficulties finding home-trained nurses are forcing health chiefs to turn abroad to find new recruits.
By April as many as 500 foreign nurses are likely to have joined hospital wards in the region in the previous 18 months, mainly from Spain and Portugal.
But increasing competition is forcing managers to look further afield amid plans in the New Year to visit Italy, Greece, Romania, India and the Philippines.
Last night there were warnings the difficulties - blamed on a lack of UK-trained recruits and extra safety demands in the wake of the Mid Staffordshire scandal - could leave the NHS dependent on foreign recruits for years to come.
Glenn Turp, regional director for the Royal College of Nursing, said trusts were “desperately competing” with each other to find recruits but using agency and overseas staff was “costly and completely unsustainable”.
“The failure by the coalition Government to invest in training UK nurses, with drastic cuts to student places in the past, has simply made the situation even worse,” he said. “Only long-term investment in nurses and nursing will ensure that the NHS keeps up with demand without patient care suffering. Failure to properly plan and invest will leave the health service reliant on overseas recruitment for years to come.”
Nick Samuels, of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, said organisations were running up deficits as they put quality and safety first.
“This situation is unsustainable and we are encouraged to see that NHS England and political parties have recognised this with some additional funding for the NHS coming next year and plans to develop services to match our patients’ needs,” he said.
Tracey McErlain-Burns, chief nurse at The Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust, said active work was underway to recruit more nurses.
“I would like to reassure patients, their families and our community that the trust is committed to filling all shifts and achieving agreed staffing levels.”
Hospital chiefs in Leeds said the bulk of spending came in the first six months to October prior to the arrival of 400 new nurses as part of a recruitment programme worth £13.5m over 30 months. “This was part of a drive to increase staffing and thus improve patient safety and the quality of our patient experience,” said a spokesman.
A spokeswoman for York’s NHS trust said hospitals were recruiting from the same pool and in some specialities this was “increasingly difficult”.
“This is an additional cost that we would not have to meet if we were employing these staff on permanent contracts, and this clearly has an impact on our finances and our ability to make savings. We recognise that it is in our patients’ best interests to employ permanent staff, and we are taking a number of steps to help us do this,” she said.
Such is the desperate need for new recruits that some NHS trusts are offering “golden hellos”, with one in Lancashire handing lump sums worth £1,500 to foreign staff, while others are providing free flights or a year’s free accommodation.
Managers in Rotherham considering offering to pay utility bills for foreign recruits for a year, while existing staff are being offered a £250 bonus on top of normal payments for working an extra five shifts in a six-week trial launched a fortnight ago.
The Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS trust, where temporary staff bills for its hospitals in Goole, Scunthorpe and Grimsby have risen two thirds so far this year, has a section of its website written in Spanish for new recruits. It employed more than 100 foreign nurses last year and has plans to take on another 100 in 2014-15.
Its director of finance Marcus Hassell said: “We have examined the causes of the increase in agency spend and are determined to reduce it through a robust workforce development programme, which includes UK and overseas recruitment of nurses, to reduce reliance on agency staff.”