A small business owner in downtown Windsor is baffled by Capital Health’s decision to award a $500,000 medical uniform contract to a company in New Brunswick.
Heather Donohue, of HENS uniforms, says business started slowing at her shop on Gerrish Street in April 2011, when it became clear a new uniform policy was in the works that would require members of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union (NSNU) to buy new scrubs.
What wasn’t clear for months, however, was what those new scrubs would look like — and who would supply them.
“Nobody knew what they were going to be able to wear… so they just stopped buying,” Donohue said in an interview from her shop.
She said the uniform contract negotiations made it difficult to order stock for RNs, LPNs and nurse practitioners. By December, she had noted a 90 per cent decline in the sale of medical scrubs from the previous year.
To cope with the lost revenue, Donohue says she had to layoff one full-time employee, and demoted another worker to a casual position.
When the nurses union voted in favour of its members wearing black and white uniforms at the end of October, the Capital District Health Authority, issued a call for bids on behalf of all of the health districts in the province for a three-year supply contract worth $500,000 annually.
Midway through the tender process, Donohue withdrew her bid.
“I found it difficult to be competitive on price for several reasons: we pay more tax, we pay high fuel costs, we pay outrageous power costs,” she said, speaking as a small business owner in Nova Scotia.
Donohue says can accept that she was unable to contend with larger businesses in the tender process; what she’s struggling to comprehend is why the project went to tender in the first place.
“It was unnecessary to go out to tender on this project. They could have very easily written the policy that says, ‘This is how you have to look — black pants, white shirt, it has to be a uniform — here’s your $100, go buy.’”
Instead, each NSNU member will be granted a $100 allowance for purchasing scrubs from Maritime Laundry and Textile Products in Riverview, N.B.
“As a taxpayer, to watch my money leave the province at no benefit to the Province of Nova Scotia, I was outraged.”
In a letter addressed to Hants West MLA Chuck Porter, Donohue said she wants answers.
“I would like to invite representatives from Capital Health, the Minister of Health and Wellness and the NSNU to visit my store. I would like them to look me in the eye and justify their decisions. I would like them to personally see what they've done,” she wrote.
Porter, a Progressive Conservative MLA, says he’ll be pushing for answers from the NDP when the legislature reconvenes in the spring.
“My opinion is that spending taxpayers’ money outside of the province does nothing to help the local economy in Nova Scotia,” Porter said.
“I have no idea what they were thinking, whatsoever. It is absolutely the wrong direction. There is no question about that. This is disgraceful, in my opinion.”
Porter says the NDP missed a perfect opportunity to support small businesses throughout the province.
“They could have given the nurses $100 each… and said go purchase your uniforms locally.”
Capital Health spokesman John Gillis said the contract was awarded to a company that offered the best price, and had the ability to meet the supply needs of about 5,000 people.
“The value of the contract was expected to be about $500,000 regardless of the supplier based on the allowance of $100 per nurse. By having one vendor, the province was able to obtain the best possible pricing for the uniforms based on the volume of uniforms purchased,” Gillis wrote in an email to The Hants Journal.
Gillis noted that staff will be able to purchase up to four full uniforms, depending on the style selected, and some of the work will be sub-contracted to a company in Cape Breton.
In his explanation of why the uniform contract went to tender, Gillis said, “The district health authorities have been working together to combine their purchasing power in order to reduce costs, be more efficient and make the best possible use of taxpayer dollars funding the health care system. In the first year of operating a Group Purchasing Organization, the districts saw approximately $5 million in savings.”
As for business at HENS, Donohue says her goose isn’t cooked yet.
“From a business perspective, it is a struggle… but I’ll make it. I’ll readjust and reevaluate and diversify yet again,” she said.
She has opened a consignment section for old scrubs NSNU members can no longer use to help the nurses sell their old uniforms. Damaged scrubs will be recycled and used to make caps for chemotherapy patients, and quilts to donate to hospital fundraisers.
Donohue says support from CCAs, vets, dentists and chefs has kept her afloat in the slow period, but she hopes to see her old friends with the NSNU back at HENS soon.
“I really hope that the RNs that are involved are still able to shop from my store. I’ve bought for them. It’s hanging here; I hope they can buy it.”