New Brunswick

'It's going to cost lives': Sussex residents fear the worst from health-care reforms

Anger and anxiety is mounting in New Brunswick communities affected by health-care reforms coming to their local hospital.

About 100 people protested outside Sussex Health Centre on Wednesday

Sussex-area residents protest outside their local hospital following the announcement of health-care reforms that will cut overnight ER services. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

Anger and anxiety is mounting in Sussex, one of the New Brunswick communities affected by health-care reforms coming to local hospitals.

The provincial government and the two health authorities announced Tuesday they will be cutting overnight emergency room service and converting acute-care beds to long-term care beds in six hospitals.

The changes, which take effect March 11, have outraged residents, drawn political threats and sparked protests across the province.

"It's going to cost lives," said Dr. David MacMillan, a retired emergency room physician who worked at the Sussex Health Centre for 20 years.

Many protesters argued against the changes outside the Sussex Health Centre on Wednesday. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

He was among the 100 or so people outside the hospital Wednesday showing their displeasure with the news and holding signs that stated "Hospitals are a Right not an elective!!" and "Hospitals are meant for emergency care."

MacMillan, who now practises as a part-time family physician, said it's good to receive some new services within the changes, "but not at the expense of this ER."

Dr. David MacMillan worked in the Sussex Health Centre emergency room for 20 years. He was at the hospital Wednesday to argue against the changes. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

"Closing the ER in a rural community for eight hours a day the entire year is absolutely going to cost some people their lives and a great deal of inconvenience," he said, adding the move will put further pressure on an already strained ambulance service.

CEO defends changes

Karen McGrath, CEO of Horizon Health Network, said Wednesday she doesn't "believe there will be any deaths" resulting from this change, saying hospitals in Oromocto and Saint John (St. Joseph's) have been successfully operating with 16-hour ERs.

"I would never develop a plan for any facility within Horizon where I believe people were going to die," McGrath told reporters at the Sussex hospital. 

"However, I would also say that, at the end of the day, we've got to make the health system sustainable for the future. If not, the other option is just not tenable."

In response to a shortage of staff and beds, the province announced six emergency rooms will close from midnight to 8 a.m. and will not accept patients after 10 p.m. It said cutting overnight ER hours will free up more doctors to work during the day, when demand for service is higher.  

The six hospitals affected 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.

The health authorities will also increase addiction and mental health services in those facilities.

'Kids get sick in the middle of the night'

Sussex resident Aaron Stapleford said she's concerned for her young children now that the short drive to the hospital will turn into 45 minutes.

George Long said he was lucky to have the overnight emergency room nearby when he had a heart attack three years ago. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

"I've made quite a few trips to outpatients in the middle of the night, and I can't drive to Saint John. That's just insane," said Stapleford.

"Kids get sick during storms and kids get sick in the middle of the night."

Resident George Long said he was fortunate the emergency room was open when he arrived after 10 p.m. one night three years ago.

"I was having a heart attack," he said.

Aaron Stapleford says she's concerned for her children's sake about the pending loss of overnight ER services in Sussex. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

Long said he was stabilized in Sussex and later sent for bypass surgery in Saint John, but he's concerned others might be dealt a different fate under the new system.

He said a Coles Island resident faces a 25-minute trip to the Sussex emergency room, but that becomes an hour's drive in any direction — Saint John, Fredericton or Moncton — to the nearest overnight ER. 

"[Health care] is a basic right," Long said. "We need to protect it."

McGrath said paramedics have the skills and resources to stabilize a heart attack or other emergencies and transport the patient to Saint John.

She said more than half of the people who present at the ER do not have an emergency and simply don't have access to a family doctor.

"We have to look at services that are under-utilized or inappropriately utilized, and that's what I did," she said.

Reclassifying acute-care beds

The reforms also seek to address the large number of seniors occupying acute-care beds in hospitals while waiting for a space in nursing homes. The 120 acute-care beds across the six hospitals will be converted to chronic-care beds, which require a less intense level of care.

Seniors in that category in larger hospitals will be moved to the smaller hospitals so that the larger hospitals are free to meet the demand for acute care.

Many Sussex residents are troubled by the decision with vacancies at a neighbouring nursing home left unfilled due to a staff shortage, they say. 

McGrath said 60 per cent of the hospital's acute-care beds are already occupied by patients requiring an "alternate level of care" and there won't be a "huge change" at the facility.

The date when the hospital will no longer accept acute-care patients hasn't been set, but the CEO said plans are being developed for existing acute patients to be transferred to larger hospitals.

Horizon CEO Karen McGrath speaks to reporters Wednesday at the Sussex Health Centre. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

McGrath will face more questions at a public meeting in Sussex on Wednesday night before facing members of the Sackville community Thursday.

She said she understands health care is an emotional issue.

"I would expect it's going to be a very hard conversation," she said. "There have been a lot of hard conversations already today. As I said, I fully expect the local leaders will be very much advocating for, you know, maintenance of the status quo here in Sussex and I'm delivering a very different message."

With files from Tori Weldon, Jacques Poitras and Elizabeth Fraser

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