The Gallant government has ruled out any "major cuts" to health care and education in its upcoming provincial budget.
Despite warnings for months that the budget would include "tough choices" to eliminate a pattern of deficits of more than $500 billion, the Liberals have taken cuts to two of the biggest departments off the table.
And that's after only three of its 10 public consultation sessions have taken place.
"Health and education are not going to be subject to major cuts or major changes," Health Minister Victor Boudreau, who is overseeing the Strategic Program Review, told reporters on Friday.
That follows hints of the same message earlier this week from Premier Brian Gallant, who said the two sectors would be "protected."
In the Choices report released in November, the government said the closure of small hospitals, the elimination of all but six emergency rooms, and the "realignment of services" in large urban hospitals would save $50-80 million.
It also proposed cutting the number of teachers to match declining student enrolment, a decision that the report said would save $10-12 million.
Hospital, teacher options raise alarm
But those options have alarmed New Brunswickers who have attended the three consultation sessions so far.
In Grand Falls on Thursday, most participants spoke out against teacher cuts or hospital closures.
The government's decision flies in the face of public comments this week by Horizon Health Network CEO John McGarry, who said the province should close hospitals.
McGarry told CBC News this week that the Liberals should make decisions as if they were starting from scratch.
"If we came from Mars to New Brunswick and we looked at this province and the way it's laid out, is this the way we would design a system?" asked McGarry. "Would we put hospitals where they are now? Would they be the same size? Would they have the same programs?'"
But Boudreau says there's a misperception of how much money could be saved by closing a rural hospital, assuming most staff and services were shifted to a larger urban facility.
"The doctors and the nurses and all the other medical staff are still going to be working," he says. "They're just going to be dispatched elsewhere in the system. So it's really just the operational of the side of the hospital where, if you were going to close altogether, you could get savings."
With other costs shifted elsewhere, the cost of the building would represent only about $1 million in savings, he said.
McGarry was blunt in his CBC interview, saying the health system needs an overhaul that shifts resources to dealing with the province's aging population.
"I hear the premier talking about health care is going to be protected — I hope he's talking about funding issues and not there will be no changes in health care because I think we have some big changes that need to be made," he said.
Boudreau wouldn't comment directly on whether those remarks put McGarry at odds with the government.
He said Horizon and the other provincial health authority, Vitalité, draw up their budget plans each year and propose them to the province, which signs off or asks for changes.