New Brunswick

Higgs awaits legal advice on $2M awarded to Horizon head he fired

Premier Blaine Higgs says he stands by decisions he made last summer, which included a major shakeup of New Brunswick's health-care leadership, but reserved comment on $2 million being awarded to the former head of Horizon, whom he publicly fired.

Premier stands by shakeup of health-care leadership last July, after death of patient in ER waiting room

An older man with a furrowed brow standing in front of a New Brunswick flag and a Canada flag.
Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters Thursday he's waiting for the province's 'legal folks' to evaluate the labour adjudicator's 34-page decision. (CBC)

Premier Blaine Higgs stands by decisions he made last summer, including a major shakeup of New Brunswick's health-care leadership following the death of a patient in a Fredericton emergency department waiting room, but he reserved comment on a record-breaking $2 million being awarded to the former head of Horizon Health Network, one of the leaders he publicly fired.

Meanwhile, opposition leaders say Higgs's lack of appreciation for the consequences of his actions has cost taxpayers money they can't afford.

On Wednesday, Dr. John Dornan, who served as president and CEO of Horizon for only four months, won his unjust dismissal case against the province.

Labour adjudicator George Filliter awarded him special damages of about $1.8 million — the amount Dornan would have earned if he had completed his five-year contract, plus $200,000 in aggravated damages.

"I haven't heard the report from the legal side yet of next steps," Higgs said Thursday.

"I guess the only point I would make to that is we've recently — and we're continuing to see — improvements in the health-care system."

Dismissal done in 'public, disingenuous and callous manner'

Higgs announced Dornan's firing at a news conference July 15, citing a growing health-care crisis that included the "traumatizing" death of a patient July 12 in the waiting room of the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital's emergency department. He also announced he was dropping Dorothy Shephard as health minister and removing the boards of both Horizon and Vitalité.

"When I made decisions back in July, it was to bring a sense of urgency into the health-care system that, you know, we have a crisis all across the country and we need to find a streamlined way to make it happen," he told reporters Thursday during an unrelated news conference in Fredericton. 

A man wearing a suit and an ID badge on his pocket poses in front of a wall with a large logo for Horizon Health Network.
Dr. John Dornan held the position of president and CEO of Horizon Health Network for only four months before he was fired on July 15. (Horizon Health Network)

"If I had to go back in July, I would be doing the same thing."

When asked to clarify, given the adjudicator's decision to accept Dornan's position that his dismissal "was done in a 'public, disingenuous and callous manner,'" Higgs said he "wasn't talking about what the adjudicator said, and whether that was right or wrong. I was referring to the overall situation and the changes that were made."

Consequences to 'throwing people under the bus'

In a statement, Susan Holt, leader of the New Brunswick Liberals, said, "There are consequences to disrespecting your team, dismissing employees like it's no big deal and throwing people under the bus.

"The Premier's lack of appreciation for the consequences of his actions has just cost the people of [New Brunswick] more than $2 million," she wrote.

Green Party Leader David Coon said "that's exactly what happens when a premier or any leader makes poor decisions."

Dornan, he said, took on the position of president and CEO because he "wanted to make a difference in the health care for New Brunswickers.

"He really was looking at how to transform the system to better serve people of this province and for his troubles, he got fired."

Coon contends Higgs "responded irrationally" to the death of the patient in the ER waiting room.

"When he gets riled, the premier has the tendency to shoot from the hip and that's never a good plan," he said.

2nd high-profile dispute with a doctor

This is the second high-profile dispute Higgs has been involved in.

A former Campbellton doctor who says he faced racism and threats after he was accused in 2020 of breaking COVID-19 rules by failing to isolate and of being the source of a deadly outbreak is suing the province, the RCMP and Facebook.

Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola, 52, filed the lawsuit in January 2022.

During a May 27, 2020, news conference, Higgs said a medical professional in their 50s had travelled to Quebec for personal reasons, "was not forthcoming about their reasons for travel upon returning to New Brunswick and they did not self-isolate as a result."

Higgs never referred to Ngola by name, but blamed what was then a cluster of COVID-19 cases in the Campbellton region and a resurgence of the coronavirus in the province on the "irresponsible individual" who returned to work at the Campbellton Regional Hospital and treated patients for two weeks.

A portrait of a man wearing a blazer and collared shirt, holding a briefcase under his arm, with trees and shrubs in the background.
Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola, who now practises in Quebec, alleges, among other things, "institutional anti-Black systemic racism," abuse of power, negligence, defamation, malicious prosecution and a breach of the doctor's charter rights, in his lawsuit. (Judy Trinh/CBC News file photo)

Asked Thursday if he's concerned his comments in the two cases could affect the province's ability to recruit much-needed physicians, Higgs said he always strives to do what's best for New Brunswickers.

"Let's put aside the personalities and the personal conflicts and say, 'How do we deliver better results?' I just stick with that principle and so it does involve sometimes some tough discussions."

Pressed for specifics of how the sudden firing of Dornan helped health care when it appears many of Horizon's successes since then were already underway under Dornan, Higgs said there have been programs "under study, under review, coming soon," being looked at or thought about for years.

"There's a sense of urgency now more so than ever to make sure that these projects get across the line," he said. "What we're trying to achieve is the results that people can feel."

He cited a 70 per cent reduction in wait times for cataract surgery in Bathurst and the number of New Brunswickers without access to primary care being reduced to 55,000 from 75,000 as examples.