Montreal·Analysis

Under fire from all sides: Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette's difficult week

Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette was under heavy fire this week, facing criticism on everything from his handling of the governance crisis at the McGill University Health Centre to his three-year effort to reform health care.

'We're going to have to fix everything that Dr. Barrette has done,' says father of Quebec medicare

Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette found himself under fire on a raft of fronts this week. (CBC)

Health Minister Gaétan Barrette was under heavy fire from all sides this week, facing criticism for his handling of the governance crisis at the McGill University Health Centre and to his three-year effort to reform health care.

Barrette's been accused of behaving like a dictator, of giving MUHC administrators the silent treatment and — perhaps worst of all  —  of crippling the health care system through his efforts to reform it.

Gaétan Barrette's problems began Monday, with the resignation of all 10 independent board members of the MUHC. Those who quit accused Barrette of ignoring the board's emails and repeated requests to meet. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

'Radio silence'

It all started Monday, when all 10 independent board members of the province's largest hospital resigned, complaining that they had no choice because Barrette refused to even answer their emails.

Former board member Glenn Rourke told CBC News he and his fellow board members had been trying to meet with Barrette for months, but "there was radio silence. We got nothing back."

In a statement, the former MUHC board members said that Barrette wouldn't even share with them reports on the hospital's finances and administration commissioned by the Health Ministry. 

Those reports were eventually made public.

'A lack of respect'

Barrette's problems deepened on Tuesday, as more details emerged of his non-relationship with the MUHC's board, and another high-profile health industry representative sent arrows Barrette's way.

Jean Coutu, the 90-year-old founder of the group of pharmacies bearing his name, said that the dispute between pharmacists and the provincial government over Barrette's battle to reduce the cost of prescription drugs had left a "bad taste" in his mouth, according to The Canadian Press.

Coutu talked about the "difficult relationship" between his industry and Barrette at the Groupe Jean Coutu annual shareholders' meeting on Tuesday at the company's headquarters in Varennes.

"What shocked me most is the lack of respect [he showed] in this public debate," said Coutu. "His negotiating tactics, the cuts to fees ... were almost always unjustified." 

Jean Coutu, speaking at the Jean Coutu Group's annual meeting in Varennes, Que., Tuesday, slammed Health Minister Gaétan Barrette for behaviour he said bordered on dictatorship. (Graham Hughes/CP)

Coutu accused Barrette of trying to recover $300 million dollars on the backs of pharmacist-owners with the minister's plan to impose cuts to pharmacists' fees and other measures to reduce the government's drug costs.

"It was extremely difficult to digest. I'm not saying this is dictatorship, but that's not far off," Coutu said.

However, the elder Coutu's remarks were later played down by the company's president and CEO, François Coutu, who said the situation his father described had been resolved in April.

That's when the province agreed to restore $133 million a year it had cut from pharmacist fees and restore a 15 per cent cap on professional allowances paid to pharmacists by generic drug manufacturers.

Stress leave increases

Also this week, an investigative report in Le Journal de Montréal showed that the number of health care workers in Quebec going on stress leave has skyrocketed.

At the regional health agency for the Eastern Townships, the CIUSSS de l'Estrie, for example, the number of workers who've taken mental health leave jumped 47 per cent in the last five years, while at the CISSS de la Monterégie-Est, the number grew by 31 per cent. 

Le Journal said the information was obtained through access to information requests.

That is in line with what CBC News reported in March, when Denyse Joseph, the head of the Union of Nursing and Cardio-Respiratory Professionals of the MUHC said that sick calls, sick leave and resignations have increased because of budget cuts and bed closures at the hospital.

Claude Castonguay, left, the creator of universal health care in Quebec, called Health Minister Gaétan Barrette's health care reforms 'a total failure.' The 88-year-old poses with Premier Philippe Couillard here in 2014, when he was named Grand Officer in the Ordre National du Quebec. (Mathieu Belanger/CP)

Reforms a 'total failure'

Finally, on Friday, the father of Quebec medicare, former Liberal health minister Claude Castonguay, told the Montreal Gazette that Barrette's health care reforms are a "total failure."

 "Eventually, we're going to have to fix everything that Dr. Barrette has done," concluded the 88-year-old pioneer, whose work in the 1960s led to the creation of Quebec's health insurance scheme, provincially run hospitals and the network of community-based clinics, CLSCs.

Castonguay was particularly critical of Bill 20 and Bill 10, two major pieces of legislation that ushered in the health care reforms which Castonguay said gave Barrette too much power.

"I will not comment on the opinions of Mr. Castonguay,"  said Premier Philippe Couillard's spokesperson, Harold Fortin, in a brief email to CBC News.

"As a government, our objective is to increase access for patients. That is what we are working on every day," he wrote. "Since taking office in 2014, access has increased."

He referred further questions to the minister of health, however, a spokesperson for Barrette said he was not available to comment Friday. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrea Bellemare is a reporter and producer with CBC Radio. She helped launch the new CBC Kitchener-Waterloo radio station in 2013 and worked as a producer there for half a decade, reported for CBC Montreal, produced radio documentaries for CBC Radio and covered disinformation for CBC News. She has also reported for the wire service Agence France-Presse.

With files from The Canadian Press

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