New Brunswick

Discourse on health-care reform too politically charged, says former Horizon board member

A former member of the Horizon Health Network board says New Brunswickers need to take a hard look at the health-care system and what he says was a sincere attempt to reform it by the Higgs government.

Luigi Rocca says people are 'digging in their heels' when discussing changes to health-care system

Protests erupted outside the hospitals at the centre of the now-halted health-care reforms. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

A former member of the Horizon Health Network board says New Brunswickers need to take a hard look at the health-care system and what he says was a sincere attempt to reform it by the Higgs government.

Moncton businessman Luigi Rocca says he's worried that the debate over changes announced, and quickly cancelled, by the Progressive Conservatives last month has become politically polarized. 

"My fear is that people are digging in their heels now," he said.

On Monday night, Sackville town council joined mayors in Sussex, Sussex Corner and Norton in calling on Premier Blaine Higgs to replace Health Minister Ted Flemming and the CEOs of the two regional health authorities. 

Four municipalities are now calling for Health Minister Ted Flemming, pictured, and the two health authority CEOs to be removed from their positions. (CBC)

The Sackville motion said council had "lost trust and confidence in the present leadership of these provincial health organizations."

Meanwhile, one of those authorities, Vitalité, has scheduled a special meeting of its board for March 13 to deal with complaints by three members that they never got to vote on the nighttime closure of emergency departments at small hospitals.

Several municipal councils in northeast New Brunswick have demanded the firing of Vitalité CEO Gilles Lanteigne. 

'The only logical explanation'

Rocca, who was on the Horizon board from 2012 to 2016, said the rhetoric surrounding the reforms has left the impression that they were driven by spending cuts.

In fact, the changes represented a shifting of resources to where the system is most in need.

"New Brunswickers have to view this and say, 'Why would these changes be made if they're not saving any money?'" Rocca said. "They're certainly not doing it to gain political capital. They're losing political capital.

Luigi Rocca sat on the Horizon Health Network board from 2012 to 2016. (Luigi Rocca/Submitted)

"To me, the only logical explanation is that the professionals running the system think we should make these changes to make the overall system more sustainable." 

Without reforms, unplanned shutdowns, like the week-long closure of services at the Campbellton hospital last fall, will become more frequent, harder to manage and riskier to patients, he said.

"If we can't even make these relatively small decisions to re-divert resources — these are not cuts, they're a re-diversion of resources — I don't know how we're going to fix things."

Critical of Vickers

Rocca said during his time on the board, members had a range of affiliations but never acted based on those loyalties.

As a former Liberal supporter himself, he said he's particularly upset that party leader Kevin Vickers criticized the reforms without offering a clear plan on how he'd tackle a staffing shortage and an aging population. 

"When I see Kevin Vickers on social media inciting fear about what he calls cuts … it is absolutely disgusting to me," he said.

Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers says, if it came to it, he would ask House Speaker Daniel Guitard to step down and vote with the party to defeat PC government. (CBC)

The Liberal attacks are validating the sometimes irrational fears of New Brunswickers who aren't fully informed about the larger context, Rocca added. "They're pouring gasoline on the fire." 

Vickers said Feb. 18 that he would develop a "comprehensive strategy" for health care that would include greater use of nurse practitioners and advanced paramedics, but he had few details on how a Liberal government would tackle the larger demographic challenges.

"You'll definitely have it during the election," he said. 

During Rocca's time on the Horizon board, the Gallant government overruled a Horizon plan to close the surgery program at the Charlotte County Hospital in St. Stephen.

After then-Premier Brian Gallant said he wanted the program to stay open, Horizon complied — but soon had to deal with a shortage of nurses.

The Gallant Liberals also rejected a sweeping 2015 proposal that would have seen more sweeping changes than what the PCs proposed, including the complete shutdown of the six emergency departments on last month's list and two others.

"There's been an extraordinary reluctance to make decisions that absolutely have to be made to help our system not collapse under its own weight," Rocca said.

"Until the political interference is removed, and until governments allow the RHAs to do their job, we're going to have a really tough time."

Rocca pointed to the Saint John heart centre as an example of a top-quality service that can't realistically exist province-wide.

If he has a heart attack in Moncton, he said, he might not survive if he can't be stabilized en route to Saint John. 

"Does that mean we have to have a heart centre in Moncton, too? And Fredericton? And Edmundston? And Campbellton? Absolutely not," he said. "We can't afford that. No one can afford that." 

Board dispute

Last week, Vitalité board member Norma McGraw resigned, saying the board had not had a chance to vote on the emergency department changes before the plan was announced publicly.

That contradicted Lanteigne's comments to the legislature's public accounts committee on Feb. 19, where he said there had been a vote on a resolution at a Dec. 10 board meeting.

Since McGraw's resignation, two other Vitalité board members have backed her version of events. 

Rocca said a lack of detailed information was never a problem when he was on the Horizon board. 

"We were sent massive amounts of information to prepare for those meetings," he said.

"I had never had any issue whatsoever in the four years I was on the board in having too little information. I always had ample information to make decisions. I can't comment on the stories I've read about, but it's surprising to me that that happened."


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