New Brunswick

Premier Higgs pushes back on talk of cuts in health plan

Premier Blaine Higgs is pushing back at suggestions the government's health plan will include hospital cuts, saying the document will be a road map for ongoing consultations with local communities. 

Premier describes the plan coming out next Wednesday as a road map for consultations with communities

Premier Blaine Higgs says the New Brunswick health plan to be released Nov. 17 will include 'commitments' to changes. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Premier Blaine Higgs is pushing back at suggestions the government's health plan will include hospital cuts, saying the document will be a road map for ongoing consultations with local communities. 

Higgs told reporters the plan, to be released Nov. 17, will lay out "clear deliverables and clear timelines that our citizens should expect" when it comes to health services.

But he said it's only the beginning of a process that will also include getting more input from around the province.

"The plan is making some very solid commitments on things that are going to change, and it's very much patient, or people-focused, citizen-focused, in terms of service delivery. That's the goal: what delivers better service to citizens, and how do you look at that?" 

"So the health plan will address the commitments, and then we work with communities in order to get better delivery, and [with] the health authorities." 

His comments came after Health Minister Dorothy Shephard finally made a firm commitment to release the plan next Wednesday.

Fear and anxiety around what plan entails

The document, titled "Stabilizing Health Care: An Urgent Call to Action," has been eagerly anticipated for more than a year.

"There's really a lot of mistrust in my community towards this government and a lot of fear about what's going to be in the plan," said Memramcook-Tantramar Green MLA Megan Mitton. "Anxiety levels are really high." 

Memramcook-Tantramar Green MLA Megan Mitton says there's a lot of distrust in her community toward the Higgs government and fear over what the health plan will contain. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Starting Nov. 19, the emergency department at the Sackville Memorial Hospital in Mitton's riding will close every day at 4 p.m. 

It's an echo of the sweeping health-care reforms the Higgs government unveiled in February 2020, only to withdraw them days later. That package included the nighttime closure of emergency rooms at six small hospitals including Sackville's.

Now Mitton says it appears there's been a move to implement some of those cuts incrementally.

"We're seeing that come forward," she said.

Following the cancellation of the February 2020 reforms, the government promised consultations with local communities on a new plan. Those consultations were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and finally happened earlier this year.

Liberal Opposition leader Roger Melanson is also predicting the plan will include cuts, pointing to an announcement last Friday that the labour and delivery unit at the Upper River Valley Regional Hospital would close.

The Upper River Valley Hospital in Waterville was over capacity when it announced labour and delivery unit would closed. Horizon Health reversed the announcement the next day. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Horizon Health reversed that announcement within a day.

 "Somebody picked it up in the Premier's Office, or the minister's office, political staffers, and said 'whoa, whoa, this is in the plan, and you can't talk about this now,'" Melanson said.

"We do know that there will be some cuts in the health care systems. There will be regions, I believe, that will lose services."

Higgs dismissed Melanson's comments as partisan guesswork.

"There aren't any presupposed situations in the health plan, but you'll see all that next week. And believe me, he doesn't have an advance copy, so anything he speaks of is pure rhetoric." 

Anticipation builds

Shephard tweeted a photo on Oct. 29 of the plan document, in both English and French.

As recently as Tuesday she said she hoped to release it this week. But in question period on Wednesday she said Nov. 17 is the date. 

"I've been pushing, pushing, pushing to get our health plan out," she said. "At times you've got to realize that staff have got a job to do, and they need the time they need to do it, in the circumstances of having COVID and many other issues." 

She also hinted at some of the goals the plan will include.

"Won't it be great when every New Brunswicker has access to primary health care? Won't it great when the people of New Brunwsick have access to surgeries when they need it? Won't it be great when we have a health care system that works together seamlessly?"

Higgs said his office played no role in the reversal of the Waterville announcement and added that "it wasn't part of the health plan that's to be announced."

Once the plan is out, "there will be lots of discussion with communities," he said, pointing out Shephard's public meetings earlier this year.

"The purpose of all of this is to continue that discussion, not do isolated changes where you say 'Where did this come from?'"