New Brunswick

NB premier says health reform cancelled because of 'gaps' identified by communities

Premier Blaine Higgs will address the cancellations of the plan to close emergency rooms overnight in six rural hospitals Monday morning.

Controversial plan for health reforms sparked protests, resignation of PC deputy premier

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs answered questions about cancelling his plan to cut overnight ER services in six rural hospitals. (Philip Drost/CBC)

Premier Blaine Higgs says he decided to cancel his plan to close emergency rooms overnight in six rural hospitals because people were asking questions he couldn't answer.

"That's concerning," he told a news conference on Monday.

A consultation, or what the premier calls a "step in the middle," should have been done with the local people affected. Higgs said consultation wasn't done and that he plans to do it before committing to changes.

"The implementation plan was just not well thought out," he said.

"I didn't expect there would be so many gaps in the rollout plan."

On Sunday night, Higgs announced the province would hold off on implementing a plan to close emergency rooms next month in Sussex, Sackville, Sainte-Anne-de-Kent, Caraquet, Grand Falls and Perth-Andover between midnight and 8 a.m. 

In the days since the announcement Deputy Premier Robert Gauvin resigned, angry protests broke out in some communities and opposition parties threatened to topple the PC minority government.

The changes were scheduled to go into effect on March 11, but Higgs said that will no longer happen. Instead, there will be further consultations in April and May. 

Meeting with health authorities

Higgs said the decision came after a Sunday morning meeting with the CEOs of the two regional health authorities.

The premier said the system still needs to change, but Vitalité and Horizon health networks didn't have answers to some of the concerns that came up in the week since the plan was announced.

Higgs couldn't answer a number of questions including the effects of proposed cuts on palliative care, availability of advanced-care paramedics for longer ambulance rides, and whether doctors no longer working at night would be granted daytime office hours to see more patients.

"Those questions should have been clear, answered, without any concern," the premier said.

Caraquet Mayor Kevin Haché, right, said he's happy Premier Blaine Higgs, left, decided to talk to the communities in rural New Brunswick before implementing his healthcare reform plan. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Kevin Haché, mayor of Caraquet, said his community and rural New Brunswick was breathing a sigh of relief.

"We're very happy that the government decided to actually talk to the communities," he said. "Everybody agrees that there's an emergency in the health care system, so it's good now that we have the possibility to say what we have to say about it." 

Reform still 'necessary'

Higgs said if someone has a different idea, he's open to suggestions but that consultations will be based on the plan he has laid out - a reduction in ER hours.

"Doing nothing is not an option," he said.​​​ "It's never been an option for me. Taking a step back is necessary." ​

Part of the consultations will involve a "healthcare summit" in June to discuss a long-term strategy for the system and the challenges in rural communities. The province will release the findings sometime this fall, Higgs said in a statement.

Green Party leader David Coon said Higgs made the right call by cancelling his plan to close overnight emergency rooms in six rural hospitals by March. (Philip Drost/CBC)

Green Party Leader David Coon spoke to reporters after the premier's press conference. Last week, he threatened to vote to bring down the PC minority government over this issue.

But on Monday, he said the reversal was a step toward winning back his confidence.

"It's not earned that easily but certainly this is such an important step."

Coon said the premier made the right call and there are other ways to address problems.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he believes Higgs made the right choice.

"It's evident that advanced-care paramedics aren't yet available to make this plan viable," he said in a news release.

Austin said he has withdrawn his threat to vote against the PC government in the legislature next month over the health reforms. 

Liberal MLA Jean-Claude d'Amours would not commit to the party going through with the non-confidence motion that they promised last week.

"Everything is still on the table," he said.

'All is not well'

Higgs said he knows the health-care system in the six regions is not good enough.

"All is not well," he said. "No one is denying that we have a challenge."

On Friday, Robert Gauvin resigned as deputy premier and left the Progressive Conservative party because of the proposed reforms.

The Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou MLA called the reform "an attack on rural New Brunswick."

Gauvin also told Radio-Canada he may retire from politics, but that was before Higgs's pivot Sunday night.

It's not clear if Gauvin's stance has changed since the government's reversal.

Rallies were planned for Monday at all six of the rural hospitals in opposition of the province's plan to close emergency rooms next month. 

Hundreds of concerned residents gathered at the Sussex Health Centre on Monday.

Mayor Marc Thorne said the premier called him on Sunday evening to inform him about the plan to reverse the health reforms. 

"That came as very good news to me," Thorne said. "I'm very happy that he has suspended the reforms, but as a lot of people have said here today, the real work is just beginning." 

Sussex Mayor Marc Thorne says the reversal of Higgs' health reforms was welcome news. (Philip Drost/CBC)

Sussex resident Jill Beaulieu had mixed feelings about the decision to reverse the health reforms. 

"I'm certainly delighted to hear that this March 11th execution date has been stayed. But I'm also well aware that it's at most a pause and this is not a win for us by any measure," she said.

"This is not a single health care problem, this is a systemic problem."

Sally Kierstead said it was important to support the hospital, which she views as a key component of the local community.

"We love our hospital. We love the doctors. It's part of the community. It has been here since 1948 and we have no intentions of letting it go anywhere," Kierstead said. 

Rallies were planned for all six of the rural hospitals in opposition of the province's plan to close emergency rooms next month.  (Philip Drost/CBC)

With files from Jordan Gill and Jacques Poitras

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