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Premier Shawn Graham and Health Minister Mary Schryer announce health authority changes aimed at quelling a French-language controversy on Thursday. (CBC)

The New Brunswick government will officially recognize that one of its two regional health authorities operates in French, says Premier Shawn Graham.

But that won't affect the legal obligation of both health authorities to provide services in both English and French, he said.

"On the front-line services, nothing is changing. The way we deliver those services will continue to be improved on and remains the same.

"On the administration of services, we're bringing forward legislative changes that reflect the current reality of what's operating in the province of New Brunswick."

On Thursday, Graham and Health Minister Mary Schryer announced a series of legislative and administrative changes they say will strengthen health-care services for francophones and address those concerns.

The legislative changes, which will be brought forward during the current legislative sitting, will include:

  • The responsibility of both regional health authorities to improve the delivery of health-care services in French will be recognized.
  • The New Brunswick Health Council Act will be amended to recognize that the council take into account the needs of linguistic communities and its objectives and purposes.
  • The minister of health will have the authority to designate university hospital centres and affiliated university hospital centres.

Schryer told the legislature on Thursday that the Committee for Equality of Health in French dropped its lawsuit against the provincial government.

Dr. Hubert Dupuis, the president of the organization, said the province agreed to the group's demands after two weeks of negotiations. He said the final negotiations ended just before 10 a.m. on Thursday.

Dupuis said he will drop the lawsuit against the provincial government, but not before the legislative assembly passes the amendments that enshrine the health reforms.

"This was a major accomplishment by Égalité santé en français and I think never again the government will try a fast one like they did in 2008 without consulting the Acadian community," he said.

Activists launched the lawsuit against the province over its 2008 merger of eight regional health authorities into two, which they claim diminished the rights of francophones.

The charter challenge argued the centralization of health authorities took away the status of Moncton's Georges-L. Dumont Hospital as a francophone institution.

The group had said the lawsuit didn't aim to impose duality in health care, which would mean separate health systems based on language. Instead, the objective was to restore a health authority that is clearly and legally francophone.

Dupuis said he believes patients served by the health authority will soon have better access to more specialized services because of this agreement.

Health board elections returning

The government also plans to introduce future legislation, allowing the election of more than half of regional health authority board members through general elections, beginning in 2012, said Schryer.

The minister of health will appoint the rest of the board members "taking into account communities of interest."

Just two years ago, the Liberals eliminated elected board members as part of their reforms, saying boards needed "competency-based professionals."

Schryer also announced that a five-year plan will be developed to ensure an equitable distribution of health-care services between the province's two health authorities.

A review of the geographic areas assigned to each health authority will also be conducted in consultation with local communities served, she said.

Other changes include:

  • The Department of Health will establish a committee responsible for the implementation of the official languages strategic plan in the health-care sector. The committee, which will include representation from both health authorities, will provide advice about meeting the needs of the two official linguistic communities in the planning of the health-care system.
  • The next provincial health plan will include specific measurable objectives with respect to official languages.
  • The provincial government will modify the shareholder structure of FacilicorpNB to include representation from both regional health authorities.

The government undertook the initiatives in response to recommendations in a report by Gino LeBlanc, tabled in the legislature Wednesday.

In December, Graham asked LeBlanc to consult with leaders of the Acadian and francophone community on ways to improve health-care services and health-care governance for francophone residents.

In his report, Toward an Improved Health System in French New Brunswick, LeBlanc suggested Regional Health Authority A, which includes the Dumont hospital, is clearly francophone in the way it operates and the province should simply recognize that reality explicitly to calm francophone fears.

"The important thing here is that their language of operations, the language in which the board would function, the language of those boards, would be one French, one English," said LeBlanc, an associate researcher at the Canadian Institute for Research on Public Policy and Public Administration at the University of Moncton.

That wouldn't affect the legal obligation of both health authorities to serve the public in both English and French, he stressed.

"The Official Languages Act obliges all these structures to serve all citizens in the language of their choice. Period. That's not negotiable. That's the law of the land," said LeBlanc.

"So I think it's a question of defining francophone spaces, francophone management areas, and from there on we can build one health-care system for New Brunswick."

Former health minister Mike Murphy cut the number of health authorities to two, saying the previous number kept patient care from being standardized and left regions competing for services and resources.

Regional Health Authority A is based in Bathurst and serves northern New Brunswick's French-language hospitals, including Beausejour, Edmundston, Campbellton and Bathurst.

Health authority B, now known as Horizon Health Network, is based in Miramichi and is responsible for the province's southeast English-language hospitals, including Saint John, Fredericton and Miramichi.

The Moncton area is jointly served by both of the authorities.