New Brunswick

Sussex MLA doesn't support Higgs's decision to cut overnight ER services

The Progressive Conservative MLA for Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins says he will not endorse health reforms announced this week by the PC minority government.

Opposition Liberals plan to introduce a non-confidence motion in the legislature next month

Bruce Northrup, Progressive Conservative MLA for Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins, said he doesn't support government's decision to cut overnight hours to emergency room services at six community hospitals. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The Progressive Conservative MLA for Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins says he will not endorse health reforms announced this week by the PC minority government.

Bruce Northrup told CBC News in an interview at his constituency office that he has not been convinced that the reforms, including the overnight closure of the emergency department at the Sussex Health Centre, are a good idea.

He said the next closest emergency departments, at hospitals in Moncton and Saint John, are already overburdened.

Northrup spoke with angry protesters outside the hospital in Sussex about the cut in ER services earlier this week. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

"I cannot support the proposal that Horizon Health has given to my government," he said. "I just can't go along with what they're saying."

Northrup said despite that, he plans to remain a PC MLA and continue to back the rest of the Higgs government's agenda.

"I have total respect for Premier Higgs," he said. "I have total respect for Minister Flemming." 

Northrup said he hasn't thought through how he'll show his opposition to the changes, which do not require the passage of legislation to implement.

Province drops overnight ER hours in 6 hospitals and some people took to the streets in protest. 3:38

"I haven't thought that out 100 per cent yet." 

The opposition Liberals plan to introduce a non-confidence motion in the legislature next month and Northrup would not rule out voting for that motion. 

"I don't know at this point. I'll think about that over the next little while." 

He said he informed Premier Blaine Higgs of his position Wednesday night and plans to talk to him again Thursday.

Higgs said Wednesday he was confident that once people understood the reforms, they would support them and that would extend to Northrup and another dissenting PC MLA, cabinet minister Robert Gauvin. 

But Northrup said he doesn't see any chance he will change his mind. 

"It's the constituents and stakeholders here at the Sussex Health Centre that I've listened to over the last couple of days. I'm here to represent them."

Gauvin plans to make an announcement about his political future Friday morning in Shippagan.

'We're kind of in a different world'

Higgs said Thursday afternoon he was glad Northrup appeared likely to continue supporting the government and hoped Gauvin would do the same.

But he told reporters he he hadn't spoken to his deputy premier in recent days and didn't know what his announcement would be, even though some staffers had been in touch with him. 

"I really don't know what he's going to say tomorrow," Higgs said.

For the second straight day, the premier maintained a strategic ambiguity over whether Gauvin would have to resign from cabinet if he can't endorse the reforms.

Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters he doesn't know what his deputy premier's announcement will be on Friday. (CBC News)

He acknowledged the principle of cabinet solidarity but said given his government doesn't have a majority in the legislature, he was hesitant to force the issue.

"It is certainly more relevant to have a minister, who is part of cabinet … take a position outside, and a deputy premier at that," he said. "But we're kind of in a different world. … I have to weigh the balance of what's important and what's not." 

The six hospitals affected by the changes are the Sussex Health Centre, the Sackville Memorial Hospital, Hotel-Dieu of St. Joseph in Perth-Andover, Stella-Maris-de-Kent Hospital in Sainte-Anne-de-Kent, Enfant-Jésus Hospital in Caraquet and the Grand Falls General Hospital.

5 emergency visits a night

The province and the two regional health authorities say that the hospitals see an average of only five emergency department visits per night, most of them not actual emergencies.

By closing those departments at night, effective March 11, they say they can shift resources to daytime, when doctors and new nurse practitioners will be able to see more patients. 

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

But Northrup questioned the case being made by the health authorities.

In his riding, emergency patients would have to drive to hospitals in Moncton and Saint John, where the ERs are already "stretched to the max," he said. 

Horizon Health Network CEO Karen McGrath, Health Minister Ted Flemming and Vitalité Health Network CEO Gilles Lanteigne announce cuts to ER operating hours at six hospitals in New Brunswick. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"They're at capacity now. They're really full," Northrup said, and with nighttime emergency patients in Sackville and Kent County also diverting to Moncton, "they're going be overwhelmed and they are overwhelmed right now."

He said he has received hundreds of emails, texts and phone calls since Tuesday, many of them describing "real live situations their families have gone through. … That really hit home for me." 

Speaking for the people

In Sussex on Thursday, several constituents met up with Northrup at a local radio station to thank him for his position.

"I'm very glad that he decided to speak for the people he represents, and hopefully he'll continue to do that," said Holly Northrup of Roachville, who is no relation to the MLA.

"This is about saving lives," added Roena Morrell. 

Greg Northrup wants to see his MLA find a way to vote to bring down the government. (CBC News)

Greg Northrup, also no relation, said he wants to see his MLA find a way to vote to bring down the government and force an election over the reforms.

"I think he should if he's supporting the people of Sussex."

The health reforms do not require the passage of legislation by MLAs, so there's no clear mechanism for Northrup or Gauvin to vote against them.

Roena Morrell was one of many constituents to show up to a local radio station in Sussex to thank Northrup for his decision. (CBC News)

One way would be to cast a protest vote against the provincial budget, which will be tabled March 10. But Higgs says the budget won't include any provisions or language about the health reforms, so Northrup may have no reason to vote against it. 

The other option would be to support the non-confidence motion the opposition Liberals have promised to introduce. 

Northrup would not say Thursday what he'll do in either circumstance. 

"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it but I want to cross it pretty quick," he said.

'It's called democracy'

Higgs said Thursday that if Gauvin quits the PC caucus altogether and sit as an independent MLA, "we'll deal with that when it happens."

In that scenario, the PC government and their People's Alliance allies would have 23 MLAs, evenly matched with the Liberals, Greens and Gauvin. 

Speaker Daniel Guitard, a Liberal, only votes when there is a tie. Guitard said this week he'll resign the post to vote with his party if his leader asks him to.

A budget defeat or passage of the Liberal motion would trigger the fall of the government and an immediate provincial election — something Higgs said again he is ready for.

"I'm prepared to put it on the line," he said. 

Asked Thursday if the controversy put the survival of the government in jeopardy, Health Minister Ted Flemming replied, "it's called democracy." 

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