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The Dr. Georges-L Dumont University Hospital is preparing to offer the province's only cornea transplant program. (Vitalité Health Network)

The Dr. Georges-L Dumont University Hospital will open New Brunswick's first cornea transplant program as a part of a provincial plan announced last week to address gaps in the distribution of health services, specifically in the francophone areas.

A Department of Health official said the cornea transplant program is long overdue in New Brunswick.

Patients are currently sent to Halifax or Quebec for the procedure.

"It's a specialized program that's not being offered in New Brunswick. So certainly for the citizens of this province, it's a welcome addition," said Jean-René Noël, an official with the Vitalite Health Network.

Noël said the addition of the service will take time. The Moncton hospital will require additional equipment and trained physicians.

It could take five years to set up the procedure, according to the health authority.

The centre will be able to treat people, such as Chad Westrup. He was 24 years-old when a scratch from a piece of sand and bacteria under his contact lens led to a severe infection on his left eye.

As a result, Westrup required a cornea transplant and he said one of the main challenges for him was the need to travel between Moncton and Halifax for his surgery and treatments.

"[It is] difficult because you have to find somebody to drive you down because at the time I couldn't drive, you know again the expense. So it's just an overall inconvenience," he said.

Health Minister Ted Flemming’s catch-up plan is intended to upgrade health services over the next five years.

Additional services will be made available at the Georges-L Dumont hospital, as well as hospitals in Bathurst, Campbellton and Edmundston.

The plan was advocated by Dr. Hubert Dupuis, the president of Égalité santé en français, an organization that is seeking the equality in health services in French.

Flemming estimated the plan will cost $9 million over five years.