NHS boards in Scotland are paying nursing agencies a higher hourly rate than the First Minister in a desperate bid to cover for staff shortages.
Health authorities across Scotland are throwing up to £4,500 per nurse per week at firms supplying temporary nurses in an attempt to keep staffing levels up.
And one trust even revealed that it paid up to £890 per shift for each nurse on public holidays – nearly 10 times the amount that a registered NHS nurse is paid.
It works out at up to £74 per hour for a single nurse and cost the NHS £12.9m last year.
And it tops the pay of Alex Salmond who takes £80,224 per year – or just over £41 per hour based on a 37.5 hour week – for his duties as First Minister.
UNISON, Scotland’s largest trade union, has warned that the severe shortages of NHS nurses has left hospitals “at the mercy” of costly nursing agencies.
And the Scottish Patients’ Association has branded the costs “obscene”, attacking NHS managers for their “bad business sense”.
Margaret Watt, chairwoman of the SPA, said that: “This is really quite obscene.
“I’m quite sure that those nurses working for agencies don’t get anything like the amount of money that is paid to the agency.
“We need to put this money into our own staff, into training and developing them.
“And we could put it towards the better drugs that we supposedly can’t afford.
“There’s also no way that nurses who come into a ward for a short period of time have the same understanding that permanent nurses have.
“If I was a manager I’d rather pay staff nurses their national insurance, tax, and their pension, and you’d still get a better deal and better value for money.”
“We’ve lost that the continuity in nursing that we used to have, and we need to get it back by investing in our own staff.”
The figures have revealed NHS Lothian pays the highest amount to agencies per hour, forking out up to £74 for a single nurse.
They also added that they have hired agency nurses on 13,792 occasions between April 2008 and November 2009, spending £3.9million.
Mary Scanlon, Scottish Conservatives health spokesperson, said: “When in opposition, the SNP were highly critical of the previous Lib Lab Scottish Executive in their recruitment of agency nurses.
“It is difficult to comprehend that the going rate for a public holiday is £890 per day and I would be interested to know how much of this sum was paid to the nurse and how much was retained by the agency.”
NHS Ayrshire and Arran admitted that while they have cut their total agency nursing costs by two-thirds, they still pay up to £60 per hour per nurse.
Figures from NHS Borders have shown that the health board pays up to £57.50 per hour while NHS Highland paid £50 per hour, and spending £426,130 on agency nurses last year.
While a response from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde would only state that they spent “over £20” per nurse per hour.
The figures, released under Freedom of Information laws, showed that the total spent on agency nurses has been cut drastically over the last five years from a peak of £29million in 2003-2004.
The figures did show that many of Scotland’s health boards have managed to significantly cut down on agency spending, with most showing lower spending than five years ago.
Health boards, with most supplying documents from April 2008 to March 2009, and with several supplying documents up to November 2009, showed a total of £12.9million spent on agency costs.
However, NHS Highland showed they spent £90,000 more last year than in 2004-2005, going from £335,262, to £426,130.
And NHS Grampian had admitted they spent half a million pounds more last year, £1.48m, than they did five years ago on agency nurses, £1million, despite pledges across health boards to cut down costs.
Bridget Hunter, UNISON Scotland’s lead officer for nursing, said the significant fee that the agencies take themselves could be used to employ many more nurses within the NHS.
She also warned that the NHS faces a nursing crisis, with too few full time specialist nurses in particular coming through the training programmes.
Ms Hunter said: “UNISON has long campaigned to decrease the use of nursing agencies.
“The extra mark-up for their profit entails means that less is available to employ more nurses or to pay them better.
“Board costs show that NHS staff, whether full-time, part-time or bank, cost less to employ, while giving nurses proper NHS pay and conditions.”
“These figures show that we have made progress in reducing the level of agency use from the £29m that Health Minister, Malcolm Chisholm said was unacceptable back in 2003/4.
“We are also aware that there has been a welcome increase in the use of NHS banks for nursing cover.
“However, further reducing the use of expensive agency cover will be difficult, as we continue to lose experienced nurses – particularly specialists.
“We are still not training enough nurses to fill the increasing staffing gaps, and this needs to be seriously addressed, and quickly.”
A health spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “While it is for individual NHS boards to ensure they are getting maximum value for money from employing temporary staff, there is a general drive across the NHS to reduce reliance on agency staff.
“Since 2004/5, spending on agency staff has been cut by 60 per cent, from £26.4million to £10.4million, and this now accounts for just 0.5 per cent of spending on nursing and midwifery staff.
“This shift away from agency staff has been accompanied by greater use of the NHS nurse bank.
“As NHS employees, they provide better value for money than agency nurses. Bank staff account for 4.7 per cent of the overall nursing and midwifery costs in NHS Scotland.”