New Brunswick

N.B. premier cancels controversial plan to close rural ERs overnight

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs has announced he's backing away from the controversial plan to close several emergency departments between midnight and 8 a.m.

'I can't in good conscience move forward' without consultations, says Blaine Higgs

Protests were held outside some of the affected hospitals earlier this week, including the Sussex Health Centre, pictured above. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs has announced he's backing away from the controversial plan to close six emergency departments between midnight and 8 a.m. in a month's time. 

Higgs issued a news release shortly before 8 p.m. Sunday. He said hours will not be reduced at the hospitals in Sussex, Sackville, Sainte-Anne-de-Kent, Caraquet, Grand Falls and Perth-Andover. 

"We have experienced a multitude of reactions and genuine concerns to the regional health authorities' reform plan," he said in the statement.

"I can't in good conscience move forward without addressing the concerns and fears that have been brought to light."

Higgs released a statement Sunday evening following days of criticism about the proposed health-care reforms. (CBC News)

The Progressive Conservative minority government announced the contentious health-care reforms on Tuesday, sparking angry protests, political divide and talk of an early provincial election.

The changes were scheduled to go into effect March 11. Now Higgs said there will be further consultations in April and May. 

"I will personally visit these communities to initiate the process to ensure that we hear from community leaders, the people delivering care and concerned citizens," his statement said. 

There will be a "health-care summit" in June to discuss a long-term strategy for the system and the challenges in rural communities, Higgs went on to say. He committed to releasing the findings of both the summit and the community meetings sometime this fall. 

In a news conference on Friday Higgs called the changes "necessary" and that "no responsible government would be able to avoid them."

Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins PC MLA Bruce Northrup, who said he wouldn't be able to support the plan to cut nursing home hours, described the cancelling of the cuts as "pushing the pause button."

"We have to talk to the stakeholders, we have to talk to the doctors, the administrative staff, the nurse practitioners and everybody involved in this situation," said Northrup.

"You've heard from the ambulance people that you know they're razor thin and they're not ready for this change. The nurses aren't ready for this change."

In a tweet, Green Party leader David Coon said the premier has "done the right thing."

Perth-Andover Mayor Marianne Bell said she spoke to the premier this afternoon about the changes and is ecstatic to hear they're not going forward.

"I don't exactly know what tipped them over but I am so, so pleased," said Bell.

Perth-Andover Mayor Marianne Bell said she was ecstatic to hear of the change in the government's plans. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

While the proposed changes haven't been taken off the table entirely, Bell said she welcomes public consultations on the future of New Brunswick's health care system.

"We want change," said Bell. 

"We want improvement. I am delighted that he is saying that he is going to come around and talk to us, talk to the people delivering the care, talk to the people in the local area. This is exactly what we want."

The province had also been proposing to convert acute-care beds to long-term care beds in response to a shortage of staff and beds.The rationale was that cutting overnight ER hours at the six hospitals would free up more doctors to work during the day, when demand for service is higher. 

Opposition to the proposed health reforms was swift. 

Hundreds of protesters stood outside the hospital emergency room in Sussex on Tuesday, ringing bells, waving bright orange signs and chanting "rural lives matter." A similar angry crowd gathered in Caraquet as the changes were announced.

On Friday, MLA Robert Gauvin resigned as deputy premier and said he would sit as an independent MLA, calling the changes an "attack on rural New Brunswick."