Premier addresses criticisms about Cape Breton health-care announcement

Premier Stephen McNeil says criticism of the way his government communicated its plans for the future of hospitals in Cape Breton Regional Municipality, rather than of the plan itself, reassures him the government is on the right track.

Stephen McNeil says changes in CBRM will bring enhanced, modern primary care

Premier Stephen McNeil speaks to reporters in Halifax on Wednesday. (CBC)

Premier Stephen McNeil says criticism of the way his government communicated its plans for the future of hospitals in Cape Breton Regional Municipality, rather than of the plan itself, reassures him the government is on the right track.

"If the issue is people seemed to be focused on the communication side, that speaks well for future access for primary care and the plan that we've laid out," he told reporters in Halifax following a cabinet meeting Wednesday.

"It speaks well for accessing emergency services in those communities."

On Monday, McNeil and other senior officials from government and the Nova Scotia Health Authority were in Sydney to announce major health-care redevelopment plans for the area.

The closure-plagued emergency departments would be shuttered at Northside General and New Waterford Consolidated hospitals, with emergency services enhanced and expanded in Glace Bay and at the regional hospital in Sydney.

The aging and outdated hospitals in New Waterford and North Sydney will be replaced with modern health centres that will retain all other existing services and possibly gain others, such as mental health or addiction services.

Two new long-term care facilities will open with 50 new beds for the area, the cancer centre's capacity will double and a new primary-care program using EHS will be launched.

'Decisions have to be made'

While McNeil and others faced anger and opposition at a news conference Monday, the premier said he also saw and heard from many people who were simply nervous about the announcement and what it would mean for their communities. The premier said it's been acknowledged many times by many people through the years the status quo in CBRM wasn't working.

"When you have two emergency rooms, one closed for 6,000 hours and the other for 4,000 hours and you can't staff them, [people] know that we have to do something and we believe we've laid out what is a very thoughtful, forward-thinking way of delivering primary health care and emergency care to CBRM."

The premier said he knows some people were unhappy about the lack of advanced notice or felt excluded from consultation, but said it's been a "20-year conversation" that has involved consultation.

"At some point decisions have to be made."

McNeil said the feedback he's getting from health-care professionals is the steps, "Depending on how they're implemented, will be a positive outcome for the delivery of primary and emergency care," and the ability to recruit more health-care workers to the area.

Communities should be confident in services

As to whether a similar move is in the future for other communities, McNeil said nothing is planned, calling Cape Breton a unique situation.

But changes have been made in the past, he said, referencing the former NDP government's creation of collaborative emergency centres, and he said the way health care is delivered will continue to evolve and be assessed.

"You know, the hospitals I go to are very different than when I went to them as a kid. So, I think those that have health-care facilities in their communities will continue to feel confident that they'll have them," he said.

"My message is trying to be, it is not the bricks and mortar. We sometimes get into a position where the bricks and mortar are just not sustainable because they've been worn out."

McNeil also responded to criticism about the lack of cost information for the work. He said putting out estimates before tenders come back only opens the door to widely missing the mark.

He pointed to the former Tory government's estimate for the new hospital in Truro, and the fact the final price tag was almost double the initial estimate, as an example of how bad things can go.

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About the Author

Michael Gorman

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Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia who covers Province House, rural communities, and everything in between. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca